Thursday, May 7, 2009

Eating flax seed (linaza) in Chile

I bake bread.  I started in graduate school when I found the baking process gave me lots of excuses for study breaks, and at the end of the day, hot bread…  a tangible product from my day’s efforts—something that could not be said for a day at the books.

Flax seeds

Forty years later I still bake bread, mostly multigrain sourdough, so when I moved to Chile (sourdough starter squirreled away in my luggage), I started looking around for flours and grains.  In the local Jumbo supermarket I found a reasonable assortment:  whole wheat flour; rye flour; polenta and chuchoca (a fine corn meal); quinoa seeds and flour; sesame, sunflower and poppy seeds, and linaza—both flour and seeds.  I bought the seeds.  They give bread a nice nutty flavor and a little crunch.  
But what are they?  Although flax seeds and flour must be common in US health food stores, I had never encountered either—they don’t show up in central Illinois supermarkets. 
 A little research via Wikipedia in Spanish  and English  and I discovered that linaza was flaxseed or linseed; that lino was flax (Linum usitatissimum), the plant form which linen is made;  and that the seed is the source of linseed oil, as well as being the darling of the health food set for it’s concentration of omega-3 fatty acids and water soluble fiber.
But what was it doing in a Chilean supermarket?  And more surprising, what was it dong in the local feria, the farmers market? 
As it turns out, linaza was a common garden crop of the Mapuche, the Indans of South Central Chile, who ate the seeds and used the fiber.  The earliest mention that I found of is in El Cautiverio Feliz, Francisco Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán’s account of his captivity by the Mapuche (which I blogged about earlier) in 1629 which suggests a fairly early adoption of this European crop. Two hundred plus years later, In Araucana I sus Habitantes, Ignacio Domeyko (1846)  wote:
The Chilean Indian is an agriculturalist, an agriculturalist by character, by the physical nature of his country, by his nature and his customs.  … Next to his house he has orchards and gardens of wheat, barley, garbanzos, potatoes, flax and cabbages; all well cultivated and fenced. [1]
Agricultura, volume 2 (1867) by Claudio Gay provides a little more detail:

The Indians of the Araucania also cultivate flax in great abundance as food.  With the toasted flour of the seeds they make an oily paste, well kneaded in the hands and then, reduced into small balls that are dried and eaten as bread with the name of meldun.  They also mix it with their toasted barley flour to give it better flavor and make it more nutritious; finally the use it in various other ways and it even enters into the composition of their chicha [beer]. [2] .
And in his dictated autobiography Mapuche chief, Pascual Coña, added the following:

To the north, it [flax] grows everywhere spontaneously.  It is also cultivated, its seed, linaza is oily; it is sometimes mixed with toasted flour.  The indigenous women make their brooms from its stems, and in the old days the fibers were twisted to make nets. [3]
But how did linaza get from the Mapuche to the Jumbo? We can only guess: Linaza was popular with the Mapuche, especially as murke, a blend of linaza and toasted wheat flour.  Toasted flour, as well as other Mapuche foods, entered the diet of the rural Chilean, often mestizos with Mapuche ancestors.  And when they came to the city, they brought their food habits with them. Toasted flour,  with or without linaza, is popular in Chile, especially as ulpo, a drink of toasted flour mixed with water or milk.  And, according to the vendor at the local farmers market, today people buy linaza mostly for “la digestión­”— love that fiber!
But how did linaza get to the Mapuche in the first place? 

Flax has a long history in the old world.  Probably domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, the earliest evidence I discovered for its use comes from a linen fabric fragment in an Israeli cave dating to 6,500 BC.  Linen remains from 3,000 BC come from Swiss lake-dweller sites and it was also used in ancient Egypt.[4] Linseed oil and use of the seeds as food and medicine are reported for the ancient Greeks and Romans, and Charlemagne, who was evidently quite a fan, required the incorporation of the seeds into French diet.[5]  In the 13th century English Franciscan, Bartholomew wrote:
Flax is needful to divers uses. For therefore is made clothing to wear, and sails to sail, and nets to fish, and to hunt, and thread to sew, ropes to bind, and strings to shoot, bonds to bind lines to mete and to measure, and sheets to rest in, and sacks, bags and purses to put, and to keep things in.  And so none herb is so needful, to so many divers uses to mankind, as is the flax.[6].
And, use of linseed oil in paints has been common since the 1400s and perhaps earlier. [7] 
By the time of the Spanish occupation of Chile, flax was an important source of oil and fiber, and was evidently cultivated widely.  We can only guess about what led the Mapuche to adopt the seeds as food, since they were not commonly eaten by the Spanish. But the Mapuche ate small native seeds such as quinoa; madi (Madia sativa),and mango (Bromus mango), and I imagine that someone with imagination saw flax seeds going to waste and harvested some. At any rate, by the 17th century flax was cultivated in Mapuche gardens, and today it is in the Jumbo.
And why?  Presumably because we like what it does:  linaza, rich in soluble fiber, absorbs water and aids in the transit of food through (and out of) the body. 

And, because of what some studies say  its Omega-3 fatty acids do for our hearts: 
Dietary omega-3 fatty acids decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Both epidemiologic and interventional studies have demonstrated beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids on many [aspects of heart disease]. …Much of the evidence comes from studies with fish oil and fish; to a lesser extent, data relate to plant-derived omega-3 fatty acids. …Sources of plant-derived omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts, canola oil, and soybean oil. Because of the remarkable cardioprotective effects of omega-3 fatty acids, consumption of food sources that provide omega-3 fatty acids--especially the longer-chain fatty acids… from marine sources--should be increased in the diet to decrease CVD risk significantly.[8] 
Those marine sources, especially salmon, are the surest source of protective Omega-3s, but if you have been following this blog, you know that Chile’s plentiful and inexpensive farmed salmon has some drawbacks.  Flax seed, on the other hand, does not.[9]

So, how can you add flax to your diet? .

  • Add it to any baked goods: bread, cookies, pancakes, waffles, muffins, etc. 
  • Make murke and drink ulpo
  • Sprinkle on breakfast cereal or fruit.
  • Add to smoothies or yogurt
  • Mix with water and take it like medicine (ugg!)
  • Add to meatloaf, casseroles, lasagna, etc.
  • Google “flax seed recipes” for a lot more suggestions

And remember—a little dab will do you.  Two tablespoons of flax meal provides over 100% of recommendations of Omega-3s and 20% of dietary fiber.


[1] Domeykmo, Iganicio.  1846.  Araucanía I sus habitantes: Diario del viaje al país de los salvajes indios araucanos.  Santiago: Imprenta Chilena.  p.  52 On line at
[2] Gay, Claudio.  Agricultura. Tomo 2. 1867. Chile: Museo de Historia Natural de Santiago. P. 137. On line at

[3] Wilhelm de Moesbach, Ernesto. 1936 Vida y costumbres de los  indigenas araucanas  en  la segunda mitad del siglo xix (presentadas en la autobiografia  del  indigena  Pascual Coña). Santiago de Chile: Imprenta Universitario Estado 63.  On line at
[4] A Short History of Flax. Anne Liese's Fibers and Stuff on line at
[6] Steele,  Robert., 2008 Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus. Forgotten Books  p.75 
[7] History Of Oil Paint, Cyberlipid Center, Resource Site For Lipid Studies  on line at
[8] Psota, TL; Gebauer, SK; & Kris-Etherton, P.  Dietary omega-3 fatty acid intake and cardiovascular risk. Am J Cardiol. 2006 Aug 21;98(4A):3i-18i. Epub 2006 May 30. abstract on line at
[8] Flaxseed and Flaxseed Oil, Herbs at a Glance, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Mdicicne, National Institutes of Health, on line at


  1. I never realized that linaza was so scarce in the US. I too picked it up here out of curiosity and love it. I like to sprinkle it on green salads for additional flavor, color, and crunch!

  2. Margaret,

    I don’t recall seeing it in the supermarket where I shopped in Springfield, Illinois---but then there were a lot of things that weren’t in the Shop ‘n Save. So, out of curiosity I Googled the local health food store. The had 4 pages of flax products, mostly pills and oils with names like “Flora Flax-O-Mega flax, 180 capsules, $16.99.” There was even "Natural Life
    Lamaderm Dog Food Dry" ($29.69/20 lbs.) Item number 25 was bulk flaxseeds ($5/lb.) and about number 30 was “Organic Milled Golden Flax” ($7.49/lb.). Now I know why I never bought it (or even noticed it) in the US.

    And it's nice to see "Tasting Chile" is back and alive.

  3. I started eating linaza two months ago. I'm very please because it has made my digestive system work much better. I was down to ones to three times per week on the unload toiled deal(if you know what do I mean),and now I'm up to two to three times per day. I feel energized most of the time and my mind has started to clear up. I can retain more memories and I'm able to learn better than two months ago. I give all the credit to the Lianza seeds. I sprinkle it on everything I eat. I'm really into it. It also has a great delicious taste.


  4. I thought this was going to be a recipe but instead it's a full blown article on flax - and a good resource too. Very interesting read Jim. Thanks. Durwin, High Barn Oils

  5. Listen up yankees ! Only buy the whole seed.Soak 2 tblsp and 1/2 a stick of REAL cinnamon in a little water for 1/2 hour. It swells like a dried bean.
    Dump that in a blender. Add a couple handfuls of ice and spin it to break up the seed. Toss in 1/2 a banana and maybe 2 cups of papaya, cantelope, pineapple, alpples, peaches(fresh) whatver you have laying around. I grow papaya so that and guanabana is what I use. Add a little water as necessary. Toss in some berries to really kick it up ! Costa Rican style fresco de Linaza ! Pura Vida !

  6. Nice article as for me. It would be great to read something more concerning this theme. The only thing it would also be great to see on this blog is some pics of some gadgets.<a href=">flora flax oil</a>

    1. Thanks Allison, but I don't think we need any special "gadgets" to include flax in our diets. I already have a spoon. :-)

      Best wishes


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