These tiny seeds offer generous amounts of the precious omega-3 fats – make them a part of your daily routine to support your health.
Why do we need omega-3 fats?
Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fat and we need them in the diet because our bodies cannot make them. They are an essential part of our cell membranes, a key component for several hormones and they help regulate inflammation in the body. They can also reduce cholesterol plaque build-up in your blood vessels and have a stabilising effect on your heart rate. As if that wasn’t enough, they also help combat some inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis.
All this makes omega-3s vital to good health but we tend to eat too little of them. Flaxseed, chia seeds, hempseed and rapeseed are excellent sources and it’s super easy to make them a part of your daily routine.
What types of omega-3 are there?
You may have heard about different types of omega-3s – there are three and the one in plants is called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Your body converts ALA to EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Fish oils contain ready-made EPA and DHA which is why some people think they are better sources of omega-3s. However, fish only contain EPA and DHA because they eat tiny algae – called microalgae – that contain them. There is a wide range of algal omega-3s supplements available but they can be pricey so omega-3-rich seeds are a great and affordable choice.
To support the conversion of ALA in your body to the other omega-3s, don’t add other oils or fats to your meal with omega-3 seeds. Adding other types of nuts and seeds is fine, just avoid oils.
Flaxseed, together with chia seeds, are the richest plant source of omega-3s. One heaped tablespoon of ground flaxseed will cover your daily omega-3 needs. Just remember that these delicate fats can be destroyed by heat so flaxseed should be added either to cold meals, such as cereal or smoothie, or to meals after they’ve been cooked.
Flaxseed contains a wealth of antioxidants and among them, lignans are the most potent. They help to reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar and are anti-inflammatory. Lignans are fermented by your gut bacteria, which produce several beneficial compounds as a result. These have been linked to a lower risk of several cancers, especially hormone-sensitive types such as breast, uterus and prostate cancer.
There are two varieties of flaxseed – brown and golden and they have very similar nutritional qualities except that the brown variety contains slightly more antioxidants.
Whole flaxseeds are very stable and keep well but their tough skin prevents absorption of their nutrients in the body, which is why we should always consume them ground or milled. It follows that when the seeds’ protective skins are broken it leaves the oils at risk of deteriorating so store ground flaxseed in an airtight container in the fridge.
Chia seeds are an excellent source of omega-3 fats and are also rich in protein, fibre, calcium, potassium, magnesium, selenium and iron. Just one tablespoon will cover your daily omega-3 needs.
Chia seeds are also packed with powerful antioxidants which not only help protect our health but can also help reduce levels of inflammation in the body.
Because they are so tiny, it’s easy to include chia in a wide range of foods for a little texture – cereal, smoothies, salads, risotto, soups. Just bear in mind that these seeds absorb 10-12 times their own weight in water when soaked and form little jelly blobs. You can easily use this property to make a nutritious pudding with just chia seeds, sweetened plant milk and fresh or dried fruit – mix in a ratio of about 1:10 chia to liquid and soak for a couple of hours or overnight.
Hulled hemp seeds are a great source of omega-3 fats although to get your daily dose you need about two tablespoons. Hempseed is rich in high quality protein so adding two tablespoons to your daily menu will also add over six grams of protein and a hefty dose of B vitamins, magnesium, iron, zinc and even some hard-to-come-by selenium!
And there’s another perk to hemp – it contains the omega-6 fat gamma-linolenic acid. Our bodies can make it but an extra dose can help because it lowers inflammation and supports cardiovascular, joint and skin health.
When shopping, always choose hulled hempseed, sometimes also called hemp hearts. They are ready-to-use and ideal for adding into smoothies, cereal, salads, pasta dishes or risotto. As with flaxseed, heating can destroy its beneficial properties, so don’t cook with it.
Of course, you can also use hemp or flax oil instead of the seeds to obtain omega-3s but the seeds have more nutrients so are a better choice.
Rapeseed is not eaten but only used for oil extraction. Sometimes the terms rapeseed and canola oil are used interchangeably but they are not the same thing – canola is a type of rapeseed low in erucic acid. This acid used to be of concern but not anymore so both rapeseed and canola oil are perfectly safe to consume.
Rapeseed oil is unique among all other cooking oils because it has the lowest amount of saturated and highest amount of unsaturated fats. While omega-3s are typically destroyed by heat, rapeseed oil also contains monounsaturated omega-9 fats which make it fairly temperature stable – its smoke point is around 230°C.
One and a half tablespoons of rapeseed oil provide a daily dose of omega-3s, a substantial amount of vitamin E and phytosterols – natural compounds known for their cholesterol-lowering properties.
Choose cold-pressed rapeseed oil when possible as it’s more nutritious compared to the cheap ‘vegetable’ oil produced using heat and solvents to get more oil out of the seeds. However, both versions provide omega-3s and have a very subtle flavor so make a good cooking oil.
Omega-3 seeds and sustainability
Flaxseed, chia seeds, hempseed and rapeseed are all very sustainable crops growing in temperate climates so whichever you pick, it’ll be a great choice for you and the environment! Whenever possible, buy organic as that’s the healthiest and most sustainable option.