Flax, Chia, or Hemp? A Nutrition Showdown
We all know that eating flax, chia, and hemp seed is good for our health (even if we aren’t entirely sure why). In a nutshell – or should I say, a “seed” shell – flax, chia, and hemp all contain alpha linolenic acid (ALA for short); the parent fat of the omega 3 family. Susan Macfarlene here to discuss these important omega 3 sources.
Omega 3 is an essential fat because our body is unable to make it (although we can convert small amounts of ALA into DHA and EPA, the type of omega 3 found in algae and animals that eat algae). The heart healthy benefits of consuming omega 3 have been well-established, although most of these benefits have been attributed to EPA and DHA. In a recent review (1), ALA was found to have a modest benefit in the prevention of heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis, and demonstrated the following health-promoting properties (1):
- Reduced hardening of plaque
- Lowered blood cholesterol
- Promoted healthy artery walls
- Prevented clots from forming
- Prevented arrhythmia
- Lowered inflammation
However, what research on ALA does not answer is what the best source is between the popular choices of chia, flax, and hemp seed.
One of the first crops domesticated by humans, flax has been commercially produced in the United States since 1753 and is used today for both its oil and seed (2). By weight, flax is 41% fat, 20% protein, and 28% fibre (containing both soluble and insoluble fibre), with a highly desirable omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of approximately 0.3:1 (3). In addition to being a good source of vitamin E (3), flax seeds also contain calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. The nutritional composition of 100 g and 1 tbsp of ground flaxseeds seeds can be viewed below (USDA database):
|Nutr. Info||100 g||1 tbsp (7 g)|
|Omega 3 (g)||22.8||1.6|
|Omega 6 (g)||5.9||0.4|
Flax seeds are also rich in bioactive substances, most notably lignans, which exert health-promoting properties as a phytoestrogen and antioxidant (3). For example, lignans from flax seed have been shown to decrease biomarkers of breast cancer in premenopausal women (4), as well as supress the growth of tumours (5). Furthermore, the bioactive substances in flax may lower cholesterol (especially in post-menopausal women), reduce the risk of comorbidities associated with obesity, and mitigate inflammation (3).
Chia seeds are a relative of the mint family and were traditionally used in Central and South America as a medicinal and staple food (6). In North America, chia seeds gained popularity in the 1980s as “Chia Pets”; terracotta figurines that sprouted chia seeds to resemble an animal’s fur or hair. Nowadays, people are more likely to consume, rather than grow, chia seeds, thanks in part to their impressive nutritional profile.
By weight, chia seeds are 53% fat, 35% carbohydrate, and 12% protein (containing all nine essential amino acids) and are a good source of both insoluble and soluble fibre (6). In addition, chia seeds are high in antioxidants and contain the minerals calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and selenium. Unlike flax seeds, which in their whole form will pass through digestion unabsorbed, chia seeds can be digested and absorbed in their whole form (6). The nutritional composition of 100 g and 1 tbsp of chia seeds can be viewed below (USDA database):
|Nutr. Info||100 g||1 tbsp (11 g)|
|Omega 3 (g)||17.8||2.0|
|Omega 6 (g)||5.8||0.6|
There is a lack of high-quality evidence to support the use of chia seeds in the prevention and management of chronic diseases. Nonetheless, a few studies have suggested that chia seeds may help prolong satiety (7), reduce blood pressure and inflammation, and keep post-meal blood sugars stable (8).
Hemp seed has seen its fair share of controversy since it hails from the same plant as marijuana. Because of this, both Canada and the United States had regulations that limited, or outright banned, the growing of hemp seed, despite its very low content of THC (
0.2%), which is effectively removed by processing and cleaning (9,10). Thankfully, these bans have been lifted, allowing North Americans to reap the nutritional benefits of these hearty seeds.
By weight, hemp seeds are 20% to 25% protein, 20% to 30% carbohydrate, 25% to 35% fat, and 10% to 15% insoluble fiber (11). In addition, they are a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and manganese, and contain incredibly high levels of antioxidants (11). The nutritional composition of 100 g and 1 tbsp of chia seeds can be viewed below (USDA database):
|Nutr. Info||100 g||1 tbsp (10 g)|
|Omega 3 (g)||8.7||0.9|
|Omega 6 (g)||28.7||2.9|
Hemp seeds are unique in that they contain stearidonic acid (SDA); an intermediary in the pathway that converts ALA into the longer-chain EPA and DHA (11). Because of the presence of SDA, it is possible that an increased amount of EPA and DHA could be made from hemp seeds (compared to other plant sources of omega 3), but this has yet to be proven through research.
Similar to flax and chia, the fatty acid profile of hemp seeds exerts a favourable effect on lipid profile and markers of cardiovascular health (11). Furthermore, hemp seeds and oil contain phytosterols, which are plant-derived compounds that resemble cholesterol but have an LDL-lowering effect (12, 13).
Which to Choose – Hemp, Flax, or Chia Seed?
What’s clear is that flax, hemp, and chia seeds are all an excellent choice and provide a good source of plant-derived ALA, along with an array of nutrients and antioxidants. Of the three, flax provides the highest source of ALA and most ideal ratio of omega 6 to 3. On the other hand, hemp is the highest in protein and provides an excellent source of zinc, while chia seeds are the highest in calcium and fibre. To me, there is no clear winner among the 3, which is why I recommend including all of them in your diet. Just keep in mind that because of the high antioxidant and polyunsaturated content of these fats, it’s best to store them in your fridge or freezer and be mindful of cooking practices that could introduce free-radicals, such as high-temperature cooking.
Flax, Chia, or Hemp. Find out why these sources of omega 3 are so important in your diets, especially for plant-based dieters.
Chia vs. Hemp vs. Flax
Which seeds pack the biggest nutritional punch? Nutrition Diva dives into a sea of seeds to find out.
One of the very first Nutrition Diva podcast episodes, back in 2008, was on the nutritional benefits of flaxseeds. Among other things, flaxseeds are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which is helpful for folks who don’t eat fish. At the time, flaxseeds were more or less alone in that category. Since then, however, two new omega-3-rich seeds have exploded onto the scene. I’ve gotten lots of questions from you about chia and hemp seeds and how they compare with flax. So today, we’re going to have a seed showdown to see how these various seeds stack up.
What Do Flax and Chia Have in Common?
Flax and chia are fairly similar nutritionally. Both are excellent sources of omega-3, each providing about 2400 mg of omega-3s per tablespoon. Both are also high in fiber, with chia having the edge—5 grams of fiber per tablespoon versus 3 grams for flax. Both also contain a modest amount of protein.
What Are the Differences Between Flax and Chia?
Flaxseeds are particularly rich in lignans, compounds that seem to provide extra protection against many types of cancer—a benefit that chia does not provide. On the other hand, flaxeeds have a hard shell and must be ground or thoroughly chewed in order for their nutrients to be absorbed. Tiny chia seeds do not have this protective armor and are readily digested without grinding.
Both flax and chia are high in soluble fiber. As you might recall from my previous show on soluble and insoluble fiber, soluble fiber is the type that absorbs liquid and forms a gel—and this can help slow the absorption of sugar and cholesterol from foods. And you can easily actually see this effect in action. If you stir a tablespoon of flaxseed into a quarter cup of water and let it sit for 30 minutes, the liquid becomes a bit thicker and more viscous. But this effect is much more dramatic with chia seeds. Stir a tablespoon of chia into a quarter cup of water or juice and ten minutes later you’ll have something that you can eat with a spoon, with a texture resembling tapioca pudding.
How Does Hemp Compare with Flax and Chia?
Hemp has much less in common with the other two. For one thing, hemp provides 50 to 75% more protein then either flax or chia. On the other hand, it has virtually no fiber. Soak a tablespoon of hemp in liquid and you just end up with wet hemp.
Hemp also isn’t as high in omega-3s. Flax and chia both provide about 2400 mg of omega-3 per tablespoon, while hemp only provides about 1000 mg. In addition, hemp is also much higher in omega-6. Flax and chia both provide about three times as much omega-3 as omega-6. With hemp, the ratio is reverse: about 3 times as much omega-6 as omega-3.
As I’ve talked about before, in order to get the most benefit from omega-3 (especially from plant-based sources), you need a balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fats in your diet. In general, our diets tend to be much higher in omega-6 than omega-3. And that’s what makes foods like flax and chia (as well as fish) so valuable: They provide a lot of omega-3 and not very much omega-6. Hemp, on the other hand, provides a lot of omega-3 but a whole lot more omega-6. So, as a way to balance the omegas in your diet, hemp is not as useful.
Chia vs. Hemp vs. Flax: Which seeds pack the biggest nutritional punch?