Is there any danger in eating flaxseed?

Well established in our European lands, flax is a plant cultivated in many branches of industry for its seed and fiber production. Since the super food or superfood trend, flaxseed consumption has risen steadily. The reason is that its nutritional profile is very advantageous: good lipids, rich in fiber and micronutrients, etc. Flaxseed has many health benefits, but also some side effects. Indeed, a high concentration of nutrients is often accompanied by potential risks for certain sensitive populations, for whom the excess is poorly tolerated by the body. On the other hand, some flaxseed compounds are criticized for the health risks they may entail.

In excess, digestive disorders

Flax seeds, like all other seeds, are known for their fiber content. With nearly 30 g of fiber per 100 g of seed, flaxseed ranks second only to chia seed in fiber content. About two thirds of the fibers are insoluble and one third soluble. Fibers are not degraded by the body: we do not have the enzymatic material necessary to degrade the long carbon chain of fibers. However, certain bacteria in the gut microbiota are able to "consume" the fiber and produce gases, health-promoting metabolites and other compounds.

Currently, the average westerner's diet is deficient in fiber. It is therefore recommended to increase the consumption of foods rich in fiber, such as flax seeds.

However, it is important to increase your fibre intake gradually, as increasing it too quickly and too much can upset the digestive system. In addition, an excess of fibre can have negative consequences on health by causing various digestive symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Flatulence
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Difficult digestion

To prevent the onset of side effects, it is important to follow the daily recommendations, i.e. 20 g of flaxseed per day, gradually increasing the amounts. Flaxseed consumption should ideally be accompanied by good hydration.

Sensitive users

Some consumers may develop adverse side effects from consuming flaxseed:

  • People with digestive diseases: the cellulose hulls of flaxseed (insoluble fiber) are not digested by the body and are found as is in the colon (terminal phase of the intestine). In case of diverticula, flaxseed can cause inflammation of a diverticulum: diverticulitis. In case of diverticula, it is recommended to grind flaxseed. Moreover, it is not recommended to people suffering from chronic pathologies of the digestive tract or having undergone a surgery of the digestive tract (occlusive or subocclusive syndrome, a chronic inflammatory disease of the intestine (Crohn's disease, hemorrhagic rectocolitis), a syndrome of the intestine/irritable colon, abdominal pains of undetermined cause, disorders of the intestinal motricity, etc.) to consume flaxseeds.
  • People prone to flaxseed allergies: Allergy to flaxseed proteins is rare, but present. In fact, it would affect one in 6,000 people. As a precautionary measure, it is best to introduce flaxseed in small quantities, in cooked form (cooking would reduce the allergic potential of flaxseed proteins).
  • Children under 12: Flaxseed contains lignans, phytoestrogens. These produce effects similar to those of estrogen, a female sex hormone. Because of the estrogenic potential of flaxseed, daily consumption is not recommended.
  • Pregnant or nursing women: Flaxseed has lignans. This compound is a phytoestrogen, meaning it mimics estrogen. The effects of phytoestrogens during pregnancy and lactation are not well known. Therefore, as a safety measure, the consumption of flaxseed should remain occasional, exceptional.
  • People prone to deficiencies: It is recommended to grind flaxseed in case of nutritional deficiency. Indeed, the fiber in flaxseed tends to reduce the absorption of other nutrients, which could make the deficiency worse.
  • People with a history of hormone-dependent pathology: due to the estrogenic activity of flaxseed provided by lignans (phytoestrogens). It is recommended not to consume flaxseed in case of hormone-dependent pathology or history of the latter.
  • People on oral medication: their insoluble fiber may interact with the absorption of other compounds and therefore reduce their effectiveness. It is therefore recommended that flaxseed be consumed away from treatments.

Do flax seeds contain cyanide?

Yes, flaxseeds contain trace amounts of hydrogen cyanide, but consumed in normal amounts, they are not toxic.

Recently, many forums and other articles report the presence of cyanide in flaxseed. The alarming information discourages the consumption of flaxseed. Indeed, cyanide has the property to bind to hemoglobin, reducing its affinity for oxygen. This results in dizziness, hyperventilation, hypotension, bradycardia which can go as far as respiratory arrest, even coma and death for the most serious intoxications.

Cyanide poisoning is rare, and usually occurs through inhalation or ingestion of certain plants such as bitter almonds, cassava, Java beans, apricot pits, plum pits, cherry pits, or flax seeds.

Indeed, flax seeds contain chemical compounds called cyanogenic glycosides. These are widespread plant toxins (phytotoxins). Cyanogen glycoside is a molecule composed of a glycoside (sugar + alcohol) and a nitrile group. The decomposition of cyanogen glycoside by certain enzymes (β-glucosidase) releases hydrogen cyanide: the compound involved.

This decomposition is called cyanogenesis. It is a defense function of plants against their predators.

Numerous studies have been conducted to analyze the risks associated with the consumption of food contaminated with hydrogen cyanide. All studies have concluded that flaxseed is practically non-toxic. In fact, scientists have found that the level of cyanide in the blood after consumption of flaxseed is not alarming. This would be due to poor activity of the β-glucosidase enzyme in flaxseed.

In addition, it would be necessary to consume more than 100 g of ground flaxseed, on an empty stomach and at one time, to observe potential adverse effects. The quantities tested are extremely high, as the scientists have indicated, and are impossible to reproduce in everyday life.

Furthermore, to date, no case of cyanide poisoning from flaxseed has been reported in the literature. The organism is able to tolerate a low dose of hydrogen cyanide and eliminates it through the urine.

When in doubt, some scientific studies observe that cooking flaxseeds neutralizes the enzyme responsible for the release of hydrogen cyanide, completely negating the toxicity of the seeds. They also recommend preferring freshly ground seeds, to reduce the contact time between the enzyme and its substrate.

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