Flax vs Chia vs Hemp Seeds: Benefits to All?

When it comes to superfoods, flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds often enter the conversation. But does it sometimes feel like it’s a flax vs chia vs hemp situation? Does one of these seeds ‘win’? As a registered dietitian, I’m here to help you navigate the nutritional wonders of these tiny powerhouses and find ways to incorporate them into your diet. Let’s explore the benefits of flax, chia, and hemp seeds to help you make an informed choice and use them up before they expire in your pantry.

Flax Seeds: A Nutritional Powerhouse

Flax seeds provide essential nutrients and antioxidants, and can support heart health, digestion to .The regular consumption of flaxseed may help to improve lipid profile and lower blood pressure, fasting glucose, and insulin resistance index (HOMA-IR). Moreover, flaxseed is characterized by anticancer and antioxidant properties and can significantly reduce the intensity of symptoms associated with menopause, constipation, and mental fatigue, improve skin condition, and accelerate wound healing.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Flax seeds are renowned for their omega-3 content, particularly alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). These healthy fats are essential for heart health, reducing inflammation, and supporting brain function. See this blog post for more information about omega 3 fatty acids as there are different forms and ALA may not be the best primary source to meet your needs.

Fiber-Rich: Flax seeds are an excellent source of dietary fiber, which promotes digestive health, helps manage blood sugar levels, and supports weight management by enhancing feelings of fullness.

Lignans: Flax seeds are one of the richest sources of lignans, natural compounds with antioxidant properties that may play a role in reducing the risk of chronic diseases, including certain cancers.

Minerals and Vitamins: Flax seeds provide essential minerals like magnesium and phosphorus, along with B vitamins, making them a nutrient-dense addition to your diet.

Brown Flax Seeds vs Golden Flax Seeds

Brown flax seeds and golden flax seeds are two common varieties of flax seeds, both of which offer similar nutritional benefits. However, there are some subtle differences between the two:

  1. Color: The most apparent difference is the color. Brown flax seeds have a deep brown color, while golden flax seeds are a light golden or yellowish color.
  2. Flavor: Golden flax seeds are sometimes described as having a milder, nuttier flavor compared to brown flax seeds. However, the flavor difference is generally subtle, and both varieties are relatively mild in taste.
  3. Appearance: Brown flax seeds tend to have a darker outer shell, while golden flax seeds have a lighter, more delicate appearance. The inner seed is the same in both varieties.
  4. Nutritional Content: Nutritionally, both brown and golden flax seeds are very similar. They are both excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids (particularly alpha-linolenic acid), dietary fiber, and lignans (natural antioxidants). The slight color variation doesn’t significantly impact their nutritional profile.
  5. Culinary Use: Both varieties can be used interchangeably in recipes. You can add them to smoothies, yogurt, oatmeal, baked goods, or use them as a topping for salads. Some people choose the variety based on their preferred color for certain dishes or recipes.
  6. Storage: Proper storage is crucial for both brown and golden flax seeds to prevent them from going rancid. Store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer to extend their shelf life.

Ultimately, the choice between brown and golden flax seeds often comes down to personal preference in terms of appearance and flavor. From a nutritional standpoint, both varieties provide similar health benefits, making them a valuable addition to a balanced diet.

Grinding Flax Seeds Unleashes Their Benefits

You can buy whole flax seeds, ground flax seeds, or flaxseed oil. Whole flax seeds have a tough outer shell that makes it difficult for the body to break down and will just pass through your system, barely absorbed if at all. And honestly, I found flax oil to have an off putting fishy taste. Which makes you wonder, does fish smell like fish, or does it smell like omega 3s?

To get the benefits of flaxseed, use ground flax seed. But don’t rush out and buy ground flax seed. Buy it whole and grind it just prior to use. It is generally ideal to grind flax seeds just before consuming them to avoid allowing them to become rancid. Eating rancid fat is very much not good for you.

To grind flax seeds:

  1. Grind only the amount you plan to use to keep the ground flaxseed fresh, as it can go rancid relatively quickly. For this reason, buying flax seeds that have already been ground is not recommended.
  2. Use a coffee grinder, spice grinder, or dedicated flaxseed grinder (dusty remnants of coffee or spice might not be what you want in your ground flax).
  3. Store the remaining whole flax seeds in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer to maintain their freshness.

Ground flaxseed can be added to various foods and recipes, such as smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt, baked goods, and more. Consuming ground flaxseed regularly can be an easy way to incorporate these beneficial nutrients into your diet. Remember to drink plenty of water when consuming ground flaxseed, as it absorbs liquids and can thicken your foods or drinks.

When you eat freshly ground flax seeds, you make their nutrients more accessible, particularly the following key components:

  1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Flax seeds are an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid. Grinding the seeds releases the ALA from the hard outer shell, allowing for better absorption by the body. Omega-3 fatty acids are known for their cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory benefits.
  2. Lignans: Flax seeds are one of the best sources of lignans, which are natural antioxidants. Grinding the seeds exposes lignans to digestive enzymes, increasing their bioavailability.
  3. Dietary Fiber: Flax seeds are rich in soluble and insoluble fiber. Grinding the seeds breaks them down, making the fiber more available for digestion. Fiber is essential for digestive health and can help regulate bowel movements.

Chia Seeds: The Tiny Titans

While similar in nutritional benefits to flax seeds, chia seeds do not need to be ground to absorb their nutritional benefits fully. Unlike flax seeds, which have a hard outer shell that makes it necessary to grind them to access their nutrients, chia seeds are easily digested and absorbed by the body in their whole form. Chia seeds provide several nutritional benefits without the need for grinding:

  1. Dietary Fiber: Chia seeds are an excellent source of dietary fiber, both soluble and insoluble. The soluble fiber forms a gel-like consistency when mixed with liquids, aiding digestion and promoting a feeling of fullness.
  2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Chia seeds are rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid. The body can convert ALA into other forms of omega-3s, such as EPA and DHA, although the conversion rate is relatively low.
  3. Protein: Chia seeds contain a moderate amount of plant-based protein, making them a valuable addition to vegetarian and vegan diets.
  4. Vitamins and Minerals: Chia seeds provide essential nutrients, including calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and manganese.
  5. Antioxidants: Chia seeds contain antioxidants, which help protect the body against oxidative stress and inflammation.
  6. Hydration: Chia seeds can absorb liquid and swell, forming a gel-like consistency. This property can help with hydration during exercise and may prolong the feeling of fullness.

To enjoy the nutritional benefits of chia seeds, you can simply add them to various dishes and beverages:

  • Mix chia seeds into yogurt, oatmeal, or smoothie bowls.
  • Create chia seed pudding by combining them with your choice of milk or yogurt and allowing them to absorb the liquid overnight.
  • Use chia seeds as a thickening agent for soups, stews, or sauces.
  • Sprinkle chia seeds on top of salads or incorporate them into baked goods like muffins or bread.

While chia seeds do not need to be ground for nutritional benefits, some people may prefer a smoother texture in certain recipes, so they choose to blend or grind them. The decision to grind chia seeds depends on personal preference and the desired texture for a particular dish.

Hemp Seeds: A Balanced Nutritional Gem

Hemp seeds are the seeds of the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa. To go ahead and just get the burning question out of the way, according to the FDA, although hemp is from the same species as cannabis (marijuana), the seeds themselves do not naturally contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.

So eating hemp seeds is not going to get you high.

Other reasons you may want to consume hemp seeds include:

  1. Balanced Omega-3 and Omega-6: Hemp seeds stand out for their balanced omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, typically around 3:1 or 4:1. This balance is considered healthy and promotes overall well-being. However, having a lower ratio could be more beneficial for balancing the overall diet.
  2. High Protein Content: Hemp seeds are exceptionally high in protein, containing all essential amino acids, making them a valuable protein source, especially for vegetarians and vegans.
  3. Minerals and Vitamins: Hemp seeds provide essential minerals, particularly magnesium and iron, and also contain vitamins like vitamin E.

Hemp seeds can be sprinkled on salads, yogurt, oatmeal, or blended into smoothies. They are also used to make hemp milk, which is a dairy-free alternative with all essential amino acids (something only soy milk has to offer in the world of milk alternatives).

Hulled Hemp Seeds vs Ground

While hemp seeds can be eaten whole, with the shell left on, you are more likely to find hulled (shells removed) hemp seeds and ground hemp seeds (hemp seed meal or hemp flour). Hulled and ground hemp seeds are two different forms of hemp seeds, each with its unique characteristics and uses. Here’s a comparison between shelled and ground hemp seeds:

Shelled Hemp Seeds (Hulled Hemp Seeds):
  1. Texture: Shelled hemp seeds have a pleasant, crunchy texture, similar to nuts or sunflower seeds. They are often described as having a slight nutty flavor.
  2. Nutritional Profile: Shelled hemp seeds are a nutrition powerhouse. They are rich in complete protein, providing all essential amino acids. They are also an excellent source of healthy fats, particularly omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which support heart and brain health. Additionally, they are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals like magnesium and iron.
  3. Use: Shelled hemp seeds are typically consumed as a snack, added to salads, yogurt, oatmeal, or used as a topping for various dishes. They are often sprinkled on foods to enhance their nutritional content and add a pleasant crunch.
Ground Hemp Seeds (Hemp Seed Meal or Hemp Flour):
  1. Texture: Ground hemp seeds have a finer, powdery texture, similar to flour. They lack the crunch of shelled hemp seeds.
  2. Nutritional Profile: Ground hemp seeds retain most of the nutritional benefits of shelled hemp seeds. They are still a good source of protein, healthy fats, and fiber. However, the finer texture may make them less appealing as a snack or topping.
  3. Use: Ground hemp seeds are often used as an ingredient in recipes. They can be added to smoothies, baked goods (muffins, pancakes, bread), or used as a flour substitute in gluten-free recipes. Ground hemp seeds can also be used to thicken soups and sauces or as a nutrient boost in various dishes.

Considerations:

  • Both forms of hemp seeds offer nutritional benefits, but the choice between shelled and ground hemp seeds depends on your culinary preferences and how you plan to use them.
  • Shelled hemp seeds are more versatile as a topping or snack, providing a crunchy texture.
  • Ground hemp seeds are better suited for recipes where a finer texture is desired, such as in baking or as a thickening agent.
  • Hemp seeds, in either form, are a valuable addition to a balanced diet due to their rich nutritional profile, including protein, healthy fats, and essential vitamins and minerals.

A Side By Side Comparison of Flax, Chia, and Hemp Seeds

Nutritional AspectFlax SeedsChia SeedsHemp Seeds
Omega-3 Fatty AcidsHigh in ALA (omega-3)High in ALA (omega-3)Balanced omega-3 and omega-6
Omega-6 to Omega-3 RatioApprox. 0.2:1 to 0.4:1Approx. 1:1 to 3:1Approx. 3:1 to 4:1
Protein ContentModerateGoodHigh
Fiber ContentRichHighModerate
Lignans (Antioxidants)RichModerateLower
Minerals (e.g., Calcium, Magnesium, Iron)PresentPresentPresent
Vitamins (e.g., Vitamin E)PresentPresentPresent
Taste and TextureMild, nuttyVirtually flavorlessMild, slightly nutty
Culinary UsesGround or whole, bakingPuddings, overnight oatsSprinkled on dishes, smoothies
Notable UsesEgg substitute in recipesGel-like texture in puddingsHemp milk
Notable FeatureHigh protein contentExcellent for hydrationBalanced omega-3 and omega-6
Complete protein source

Incorporating Super Seeds Into Your Diet

You don’t have to choose just one! Incorporating flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds into your diet are all excellent way to enjoy a variety of nutritional benefits. Here are some ideas:

  • Smoothies: Add a tablespoon of any of these seeds (or all three!) to your morning smoothie for a nutritional boost.
    • Remember: Ideally flax seeds are ground just prior to consumption.
  • Yogurt and Oatmeal: Sprinkle seeds on top of yogurt or oatmeal for added texture and nutrition.
  • Baking: Mix seeds into muffin or pancake batter for an easy nutrient boost.
  • Homemade Energy Bars: Make your own energy bars with seeds, nuts, and dried fruits.

In conclusion, flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds are all remarkable additions to your diet, each offering unique health benefits. By incorporating these super seeds into your meals and snacks, you can enjoy a more varied and nutritious eating plan. Whether you choose flax, chia, hemp, or a combination of these seeds, you’re taking a step toward better health and well-being.

References

Nowak W, Jeziorek M. The Role of Flaxseed in Improving Human Health. Healthcare (Basel). 2023 Jan 30;11(3):395. doi: 10.3390/healthcare11030395. PMID: 36766971; PMCID: PMC9914786.

Knez Hrnčič M, Ivanovski M, Cör D, Knez Ž. Chia Seeds (Salvia hispanica L.): An Overview-Phytochemical Profile, Isolation Methods, and Application. Molecules. 2019 Dec 18;25(1):11. doi: 10.3390/molecules25010011. PMID: 31861466; PMCID: PMC6994964.

Cerino P, Buonerba C, Cannazza G, D’Auria J, Ottoni E, Fulgione A, Di Stasio A, Pierri B, Gallo A. A Review of Hemp as Food and Nutritional Supplement. Cannabis Cannabinoid Res. 2021 Feb 12;6(1):19-27. doi: 10.1089/can.2020.0001. PMID: 33614949; PMCID: PMC7891210.

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Anne Marie Berggren RDN, MS, CDN, CNSC is a Registered Dietitian with a Master's Degree in Nutrition, training in integrative and functional nutrition, nutrition for mental health, obesity and weight management, is a board certified nutrition support clinician, and an adjunct professor for the Stony Brook Graduate Nutrition Program teaching advanced clinical nutrition.

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