Red River Cereal
This article isn’t really about Red River Cereal; that was just to call attention to the fact that , like kitchen appliances and women’s fashions, what’s old is new again.
It seems that you can’t look at any baked goods shelf, even at Starbucks, without finding a “new item” containing flaxseed. The cereal aisles are filled with new breakfast foods promoting the health benefits of flax. The world seems to have gone flax-mad.
Flaxseed comes from Linum usitatissimum, a plant prized from ancient times for its fibre. There are many other varieties of the flax plant now cultivated, but the original plants had long stems with soft fibres that could be teased out by a process of long soaking (“retting,” as anyone who does crosswords knows), and used to make everything from paper, to sails, to clothing. It shouldn’t be surprising that the Latin word “usitatissimum” means “most useful.”
The tiny, dark seeds of the plant were not used much as food: they were said to cause extreme flatulence. Or perhaps it was before the invention of dental floss. Instead, the oils were extracted for use in herbal cough and cold remedies and used to heal burns and infections.
In order to assure the softest fibres for making of prized linens, flax has to be harvested before the seeds are ripe so it was not often that both fibre and seeds were produced from the same crop. Countries such as Ireland and here, in Quebec, became known for their fine linens, but until the relatively new interest in the health benefits of flaxseed, the majority of the world’s flax was grown for industrial seed oil, primarily in the linoleum and paint industries.
(In North America, the flax plant is generally called “flaxseed,” while Europeans use “flaxseed” when speaking of the linen-producing plant and “linseed” when referring to the seed oil plant. In Canada, it seems to be convention to use “linseed” when talking about industrial seed products such as finishing oils, and “flaxseed” oil when we are considering eating the stuff.)
Canada is now the number one producer of flaxseed in the world. The Canadian varieties of flax are a short variety, cultivated primarily for their seed, although creative as we are, products such as inside car door panels are now made from the short fibres. Earlier methods of expressing the oil for industrial use involved solvents and high heat, making it unsuitable for human consumption. Extraction is now done first by a cold-pressed method for edible oil, and then a further one for industrial use. The seed cakes left over are then used for livestock feed.
Flaxseed has three important roles in maintaining health. The seed contains a component known as lignans, a type of phytoestrogen, that has been shown to prevent breast cancer and possibly prostate. These lignans also help stabilize women’s estrogen-progesterone cycles and ease many associated complications.
The high fibre aids digestion, relieves constipation, lowers cholesterol, and regulates blood sugars. Probably the most talked-about function is the high content of the omega-3 fatty acid called alpha linolenic acid (ALA) which is highly associated with lowering the risk of stroke and heart disease.
When fed to livestock, flaxseed improves the overall health and vigour of their coats and most important, when fed to laying hens, increases the content of ALA in the eggs by as much as 50%.
Without any doubt, the best and most economical way to purchase flaxseed is the whole seed. Flaxseeds are protected by a tough shell. Without this shell, the oil will break down quickly with heat and light, destroying any benefit. With the shell intact, the seeds can be kept for up to a year at room temperature. But this goes with a codicil: you cannot eat whole flaxseed and expect to get the benefit of the ALA or lignans unless you chew vigorously. Flaxseeds are notorious for going straight through! So, if you are just eating it for the enjoyment of the nutty crunch and to improve your regularity, toss them into anything whole.
To get the full health benefit, you must grind the flaxseed into an oily meal in either a “coffee” grinder or food processor. Only grind as needed; extra ground meal or purchased flax meal needs to be used quickly or stored in the fridge or freezer.
Flaxseed oil can be bought in small amounts for use in salad dressings or to replace butter or margarine on your baked potatoes or rice. But it will not have the benefit of either fibre or the lignans which are found in the body of the seed.
Ground flaxseed can be added to almost any baked product or cooked foods such as casseroles, pasta, or meat loaf! It should never be fried as this breaks down the oil and makes the flavour bitter. It can be used to replace eggs: 15ml flaxseed meal plus 45ml water equals one egg.
I am sure that this flax craze will fade in time; but we will always have our Red River Cereal, or “bug porridge” as many knew it as kids. Created in Manitoba in 1924, this healthy hot cereal with flax has been staring us in the face all of our lives!
Recently, I read an article about a cereal restaurant; a place you can go and get a bowl of your favourite cold or hot cereal, just like Mom used to make. Can you imagine being in a room full of strangers schlurping up a bowl of Corn Pops, milk dripping down their chins as they up-end the bowl to finish off the sugary milk. Will they be playing Astro Boy and Scooby Doo on the plasma screen? I had to endure a dozen years at home watching my brother do this; do I really want to pay to watch it now?