Flax: The good seed

flax

The good seed

Marty Riske is the unlikeliest of candy-store owners.

Tanned, perpetually busy, with nary a spare ounce on his trim frame, Riske looks like he should head a Pilates studio or health center.

Instead, his kingdom is Widman's, a haven of chocolates and coffee tucked in a strip mall south of Fargo's booming 13th Avenue South.

Here, customers can order thickly iced hazelnut cookies, a miniature cho-colate bombe filled with mocha mousse or -- a Widman's specialty -- potato chips dunked in milk chocolate.

But look closer, and you'll find evidence of Riske's healthy lifestyle. The store also sells dark-chocolate hearts, no bigger than a quarter, which are infused with one of the hottest health foods of the 21st century: flaxseed oil.

Widman's sells these healthy valentines, called Heartify, to customers who wish to chase their Belgian truffles with a cholesterol-busting, heart-boosting treat.

Call it Life by Chocolate.

The beauty of Heartify isn't solely its nutritional punch, impressive as it is. It's also noteworthy as a purely North Dakota-made product, conceived through Riske's ingenuity and the research of North Dakota State University food scientists.

Representing the NDSU camp is Cliff Hall, who believes Heartify is just one example of how flax can be made more palatable. Flax, despite its many disease-battling qualities, doesn't taste great, especially if it's been stored or handled improperly.

Some people like it. But for many Americans -- who are weaned on the easy palatability of donuts and fries -- it is, at best, an acquired taste. Flax can taste grassy, bitter and paint-like. So Hall and his colleagues have studied the best way to mask its sometimes-pungent keynotes. They're incorporating it into ice cream, pasta, even hotdogs.

They plan to publish their findings in the bibles of the food industry, including the Journal of Food Science, the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry and the Journal of the American Oil Chemists Society. Once research hits these respected publications, food companies are more likely to take notice. From there, it could be just a matter of time before flax-fortified franks start showing up in supermarkets nationwide.

Pretty heady stuff, when you think about it. Still, Hall -- a low-key sort with the air of your most unflappable brother-in-law -- keeps it all in perspective. "With 95 percent of the U.S. flax crop being raised in North Dakota, I think it's worthwhile for us to continue the work," he says. "If I help flax producers to sell more flax, we have helped economic development in North Dakota. I've done my job."

Although flax has been consumed by humans for thousands of years, it is better known as an ingredient in paints, fiber and cattle feed. As early as the 1950s, NDSU's Jack Carter was extolling the seed's nutritional merit. He was one of the first researchers in the country to do so.

Half a century later, the former plant sciences chair remains so committed to flax's virtues that the "emeritus" portion of his title is a strict technicality. As president of the Flax Institute of the United States, he still comes to his office daily to field questions and review research about the production and usage of flax.

Today, we know the tiny flaxseed owes its nutritional wallop to three key ingredients: lignans, omega-3 essential fatty acids and fiber. Lignans benefit the heart and possess anti-cancer properties. Omega-3s, often in short supply in populations with low-fish diets, promote heart health by reducing cholesterol, blood pressure and plaque formation in arteries. Flax's soluble and insoluble fibers also aid in cardiac and bowel health.

In response to public demand, food companies want to incorporate flax into their products -- but aren't sure how to go about it, Hall says. "You really have to get to know flax to be ready to utilize it." He was more than glad to lend his expertise to a local business like Widman's. Riske, who has studied nutrition under New Age guru Deepak Chopra, wanted to create a product that combined the healing powers of flax with the antioxidant qualities of dark chocolate.

Riske believed after-meal confections would be ideal, as studies show the body prefers to receive its nutrition in manageable microdoses throughout the day vs. one multivitamin.

He had the concept, but not the scientific background to apply it. After initially experimenting with a flaxseed-oil-infused chocolate, he turned to NDSU for guidance. Hall answered many of his technical questions. "They knocked themselves out to help me," Riske says.

For a while, the team experimented with a chocolate that incorporated actual crushed flaxseed. The result was a crunchy confection, much like chocolate-covered sunflower seeds. But it had one big problem. The seed's mucilage, a gummy substance, clamped onto teeth like barnacles to a hull.

It seemed logical, then, to return to the flax oil-chocolate combo. With more experimenting, Riske struck gold: an intensely flavored confection, with a silky consistency and a subtle, flax-tinged aftertaste. Three chocolates a day easily meet the recommended intake of 1.5 to 3 grams of omega-3s daily.

Riske launched the product in a January ceremony that included the mayor of Fargo, the governor of North Dakota and other assorted notables. A story by a local TV station had a ripple effect: As NBC affiliates picked up the story, viewers from other parts of the country ordered Heartify.

The clamor has leveled off since then, but the candy is still selling at a respectable clip, Riske says. He hopes to expand Heartify's market via the Widman's Website and new retail sites on the West Coast. He's also developed new packaging: a collector's tin, with a label that emphasizes Heartify's value as a functional food.

It's hard not to feel nostalgic when walking the corridors of Harris Hall.

The university's home to cereal and grain research is filled with the comforting smell of baked bread. The highly waxed tile floors are reminiscent of those you'd find in a 1950s-era elementary school.

Even Hall's laboratory seems a little like a school kitchen, with its commercial-grade oven and a mixer you could use to whip up cookies for 300 of your closest friends.

Today, Hall and research assistant Mehmet Tulbek are concentrating on another piece of equipment -- a stainless steel box about the size of a toaster oven. Look closer, and you realize it's an ice cream maker. A very nice one, with no need to add rock salt or to station Dad nearby to crank the handle. A coolant flows evenly and steadily around the chamber where the milk-sugar-flax oil cocktail is churned. The result: One small, perfect batch of ice cream in 10 minutes -- a fraction of the time it would take Dad to crank it.

The ice cream maker isn't here to produce daily snacks for Hall and his team, as tempting as that might be. Instead, it's crucial to his research. Ice cream, it turns out, is actually an ideal host for flax. Yogurt, ice cream and other dairy products require cold storage, which prevents the high-oil seed from turning rancid.

So far, Hall's results have been promising. A panel of taste-testers -- trained to assess products in terms of appearance, texture and taste -- detected the presence of flax only when it reached 15 percent (meaning 15 percent of the milkfat had been replaced with flax oil). In an untrained panel of consumers, the flax-to-milkfat replacement climbed to 25 percent before the majority of tasters noticed.

Flavored ice creams could have even more potential. Chocolate ice cream, especially, masks flaxseed's pungent aftertaste. And if chocolate is mixed with crushed flaxseeds, the ice cream takes on a nutty flavor and texture, much like Rocky Road.

But for research purposes, Hall is concentrating on vanilla, as its pleasant blandness can't camouflage much of anything. "We felt that with vanilla ice cream, that would be the worst-case scenario, and that individuals would most likely be able to determine if something other than milkfat were present," he says.

The food scientist always serves up his ice cream data with a heaping scoopful of precaution. "I'm not advocating eating a half-gallon of ice cream just because it has flax in it," says Hall, who sometimes finds himself debating the topic with dietitians. "But if you want that little treat here and there, and it's a way of getting your flaxseed oil, this is the way to do it."

Yet another way to tame flax's taste is to roast it. This curbs the bitterness, while enhancing the seed's nutty flavors.

NDSU researchers have practically made flax roasting into an art form. In fact, after sampling Hall's work, representatives from a company that sells roasted flax admitted they liked Hall's flax better than their own.

The key, Hall says, is to approach the process as any scientist would. "We roasted with different times and temperatures, we did physical temperatures to see if the oil was degraded, and we did sensory testing on it. That told us the conditions that would give us the best-flavored roasted flax." Roasted flaxseed could be added to products or eaten alone as a snack food. The only drawback is its size; you practically need a tweezers to pick up a seed. In response, some food companies are examining ways to make the seeds clump together into more snackable pieces.

Even if roasted flax doesn't take off in America, it already enjoys a solid market in Japan.

Hall and his research assistants have tried several experiments with the roasted flaxseed. In one, they've analyzed a specialty oil made from the roasted seed. In another, Tulbek and fellow grad student, Scott Meyers, create a low-carb cookie that contains the roasted seed. The cookies, fittingly cut into bison shapes, taste much like high-fiber animal crackers. Mehmet presented his cookie research, along with plenty of healthy samples, at the American Association of Cereal Chemists student product development competition in September.

"I've been really excited about the roasted flaxseed," Hall says, "because I can see the expanded opportunities." Pasta, chocolate, ice cream, cookies, specialty oils. It's only the beginning. A few companies have already introduced products such as flax-enriched tortillas. And within North Dakota's borders alone, flax gum as a thickening/emulsifying agent and flax as a starch-replacement in low-carb foods are being considered.

--T. Swift