Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Flax an overlooked crop, but that may change

Recent approval of health claim could get it more acreage

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When a reader emailed the Manitoba Co-operator recently to question the accuracy of a story we carried about research showing flaxseed's health benefits, our first reaction was to agree the story couldn't be right.

"In the article on flaxseed lowering blood pressure, you may want to have the author correct the statement about flaxseed costing '25-50 cents per ounce!' That would be a really nice price for flax! ($225-$450/bu.) However, if she meant 'per pound,' then it makes more sense -- $14-$28/bushel.

"If it really is that price per ounce, I am going to set up my own flax-cleaning-processing centre on the farm and figure out how to break into this market," the farmer said.

Well, he might want to start building. After a quick trip to the grocery store to see what 16-oz. packages of flax are selling for, I started wondering if I was in the wrong business, too.

SSLqFlaxseed is so cool, it's one of my favourite functional foods'

It's important to note unlike processing wheat into bread, milk into cheese or barley into beer, the end product in this case isn't much different than what comes out of the farmer's bin. In most cases, all that's been done to "add value" has been to clean out the weed seeds, grind it and stick it in a pretty package. Consumers can get the same effect by grinding their own whole seed in a coffee grinder.

The flax the farmer sells for around $13.25 a bushel, which in historic terms is a pretty good price, works out to about 23 cents per pound based on a 56-pound bushel. By the time it gets to the consumer in those one-pound (454-gram) packages, it's worth more than $400 a bushel.

Now that's value-added.

It's a serious consideration for a flax farmer because the value of flax at the consumer end of things is about to rise even further.

Health Canada has recently approved the Flax Council of Canada's petition for a health claim that consuming ground flax significantly reduces cholesterol, one of only 10 such health claims allowed so far in Canada.

In a global health-and-wellness food market that's growing at a rate of eight to 15 per cent a year, getting a federal agency's stamp of approval on the healthfulness of your product is a ticket to that much sought-after "demand pull" from the marketplace.

For example, when Quaker Oats received approval from U.S. authorities to include a health claim on the iconic Cheerios cereal boxes, demand for the product grew 11 per cent between 1995 and 1999, Kelly Fitzpatrick, of NutriTech Consulting told a seminar at last week's CropConnect conference in Winnipeg.

"Flaxseed is so cool, it's one of my favourite functional foods," Fitzpatrick said. Not only does it pack a huge nutritional punch -- with the highest level of plant-based omega-3 fatty acid, lignans and a good dose of dietary fibre -- it is an easy fit with a wide range of foods and beverages. That's a good thing, because you have to eat about six tablespoons of ground flax a day (40 grams) to get the healthy effect, which studies show is a nine to 15 per cent reduction in LDL cholesterol.

In another neat twist, it's the synergistic effects of all of those components in the whole seed that deliver on the cholesterol-reducing claim, not just one quality, she said. "It's the whole seed and all its goodness that has helped lead to the cardiovascular health claim that we have with flax," Fitzpatrick said.

That's even better news for farmers.

The tendency in the functional-food business has been to extract the healthy compound and put it into an expensive pill, which doesn't do as much to increase the volume of raw commodities required.

Flax has been having a hard time maintaining acreage in Manitoba in recent years, as farmers turned to higher-yielding and more lucrative commodity crops such as canola and soybeans.

Developments such as this might give farmers the incentive they need to keep flax in their rotations -- and take a step up the value chain.

 

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 B9

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