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Power Foods: Flax

First of all, flax tastes fine: mild, pleasant, slightly nutty. Second, it's versatile, easily baked into muffins, sprinkled on yogurt or cereal, even added to soups. Third, it's a bargain, at about $1 to $1.50 a pound. Finally (and most notably), it's very, very good for you -- rich in fiber, phytochemicals, and omega-3 fatty acids.

About the only complaint one could lodge against flaxseed is that its dark color can mar some light-colored recipes. But with the golden version now available in grocery and health-food stores, even that excuse not to eat flax is flimsy.

Parsley-Flaxseed Pesto
Banana-Yogurt Smoothie

Flaxseed comes from the same blue-flowered plant, Linum usitatissimum, that brings us linen fabric and the linseed oil used in woodworking. As one of the richest sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential fatty acid in the omega-3 family, flax provides anti-inflammatory benefits and helps protect against atherosclerosis, heart disease, and stroke. It also contains a good balance of soluble and insoluble fiber to help with digestion and cardiovascular health. Additionally, flax is an excellent source of lignans, which are phytoestrogens that may help protect you against hormone related cancers, such as breast cancer.

About the size of sesame seeds, these dark or golden gems have a tough, shiny coat that looks lovely sprinkled atop breads and rolls. Unfortunately, that coat also keeps the nutrients sealed inside, all the way through your digestive system.

To make the seed's health benefits more available to your body, grind your flax into a meal before using it. Buy the seed whole and process a few tablespoons at a time using a coffee grinder, spice grinder, or a specialized flax grinder. Note, though, that some experts believe that the high fat content of flax will make it go rancid quickly once you break the seed, so use flax immediately after grinding.
You'll also find pre-ground flaxmeal available in health-food stores, vacuum-packed to stay fresh. Keep it in the freezer once you open it to reduce the risk of it becoming rancid.

You only need a tablespoon of ground flax a day to reap its rewards, so you can take a here-and-there approach. Add it to your oatmeal or your morning omelet or slip it into your peanut butter sandwich. Elaine Magee, R.D., author of more than 25 books, including "The Flax Cookbook," suggests mixing ground flaxseed into fruit smoothies and dark, wet sauces and stews.

You can also sneak flax into many baking recipes, which won't diminish its health benefits. It's not a simple substitute for flour, however, as flax is more oily and has no gluten for elasticity. For every cup of flour, try replacing 1/4 cup with ground flax, suggests Magee. Of course, you don't even have to be sneaky with flax; it's tasty enough to take a starring role.

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