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Flax fuels lives, some in N.D. say

Jack Carter attributes his longevity to good genes, decades of active living and eating flax. Carrie Snyder Forum Communications Co.

FARGO -- Jack Carter has cultivated the habit of supplementing his oatmeal or cold cereal with two heaping tablespoons of ground flaxseed.

He doesn't add flax as a flavor condiment, although he likes the nutty taste it contributes.

His flax habit began decades ago, stimulated by the health benefits the oil seed can provide.

Flax seed is a plant source of omega-3 fatty acids, which studies have found benefit cardiovascular health and might help guard against coronary artery disease, among other ailments.

"I've been eating flax for 20 or 30 years," he says. The practice is an outgrowth of his long career as a plant scientist at North Dakota State University, where he once headed the agronomy program.

In fact, Carter, who is 91, was instrumental in founding the Flax Institute at NDSU, which promotes the nutritional benefits of flax for people and livestock. North Dakota is the nation's leading flax-growing state.

"I saw the need for more research and publications in flax," he says. "I used to get inquiries from all over the United States."

Carter lived what he preached for all those years, incorporating flax into his diet. So when it was time 2 1/2 years ago to move out of his home in north Fargo for an assisted-living apartment, his flax grinder and seed moved with him.

The grinder is important, he says, in order to get the maximum benefits of the omega-3 oil and dietary fiber.

Some prefer to take flaxseed oil, which doesn't have the fiber. The recommended daily dose of flaxseed oil is 1 to 3 tablespoons.

Flax also has anti-inflammatory properties, softens skin in people and improves fur coats in animals. One study found flax can reduce psoriasis in some people.

Some claim that lignans, estrogen-like compounds with anti-inflammatory qualities, reduce risks of some cancers, including breast cancer, but the Mayo Clinic advises that there is not enough evidence to make a recommendation.

On the other hand, preliminary evidence supports the idea that flax oil supplements might improve symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, although the Mayo Clinic concludes that more evidence is needed.

Although some tout flaxseed oil as a means of regulating blood-sugar levels for diabetics, that isn't recommended by the Mayo Clinic.

Flax has long been a popular item at Tochi Products in Fargo, where customers can buy organic flaxseed in small quantities or in bulk, as well as flaxseed oil.

"We go through a lot of flax," says Joe Hoglund of Tochi. "It's one of our better bulk sellers."

Also, some customers prefer flaxseed oil as a source of omega-3 instead of fish oil, which some worry might contain mercury, or leave a fishy aftertaste.

Julie Garden-Robinson, a food writer and nutritionist at NDSU Extension, researched flax for her doctoral dissertation. She was exploring the potential of the seed's outer coating for use as a food gum.

"It had some possibilities," she says. "Now the big emphasis is on grinding the whole flax."

She agrees that omega-3 from fish oil appears to be more readily absorbed, but said research into flaxseed's beneficial effects is "ongoing."

Garden-Robinson, who has published recipes for flax, including one for granola bars, says she gets inquiries about flax foods, adding that the seeds are available in the bulk food or health food section of many grocery stores.

"I continue to get questions about flax," she says.

Once she completed her doctoral research, however, her own consumption of flax has become more sporadic.

"It's more of an occasional thing for me," Garden-Robinson says. "It tastes fine. It has sort of a nutty taste. You wouldn't even taste it if you put it in most foods. There isn't really a magic food out there. It's a matter of variety."

Once an avid home baker, Carter came up with a recipe for flax bread and also baked muffins with flax, a good source of dietary fiber.

"A lot of people stir it into a smoothie of some sort before they go to bed at night," he says.

He also was an active gardener for many years, a hobby rooted in the large garden his parents had on the farm where he was reared in Nebraska. But he had to give up his garden a few years ago, as the ailments of advanced age caught up with him.

He credits his longevity to hereditary factors, his many years of walking or bicycling to and from campus, gardening -- and, of course, flax.

Patrick Springer is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.