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The flax seed oil scam

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Marketing droids try to make you believe that their stuff is as good as fish oils. They're wrong, and they know it.

First, there is the ratio of omega 3 fatty acids to omega 6 fatty acids: most cold-pressed oils, most grain-fed meat animals, and most farm-fed fish have an abundance of omega-6 fats and very little omega-3 fats.

We'd need these two in a ratio of 1 part omega 3 to 1 part omega 6. We get them, in a typical diet, in a ratio of 1:6 or so. Hence the need for omega-3 fatty acids.

Next, there's the two types of omega-3 fatty acids:

Some plant oils (linseed (= flax seed) oil, among others) contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a short-chain omega-3 fatty acid.

The fats in cold-water fish (cod, salmon, herring and the like) contain long-chain omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

The scam is in flax seed oil folks trying to maintain that we can convert ALA into EPA and DHA in anything like relevant amounts.

We can't. We convert at most 10 %, but usually less than half that.

Here's a study from 1998, but this has been fairly common knowledge with nutritionists since at least 1985:

Gerster H: Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)?
Int J Vitam Nutr Res 1998;68(3):159-73

A diet including 2-3 portions of fatty fish per week, which corresponds to the intake of 1.25 g EPA (20:5n-3) + DHA (22:6n-3) per day, has been officially recommended on the basis of epidemiological findings showing a beneficial role of these n-3 long-chain PUFA in the prevention of cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases. The parent fatty acid ALA (18:3n-3), found in vegetable oils such as flaxseed or rapeseed oil, is used by the human organism partly as a source of energy, partly as a precursor of the metabolites, but the degree of conversion appears to be unreliable and restricted. More specifically, most studies in humans have shown that whereas a certain, though restricted, conversion of high doses of ALA to EPA occurs, conversion to DHA is severely restricted. The use of ALA labelled with radioisotopes suggested that with a background diet high in saturated fat conversion to long-chain metabolites is approximately 6% for EPA and 3.8% for DHA. With a diet rich in n-6 PUFA, conversion is reduced by 40 to 50%. It is thus reasonable to observe an n-6/n-3 PUFA ratio not exceeding 4-6. Restricted conversion to DHA may be critical since evidence has been increasing that this long-chain metabolite has an autonomous function, e.g. in the brain, retina and spermatozoa where it is the most prominent fatty acid. In neonates deficiency is associated with visual impairment, abnormalities in the electroretinogram and delayed cognitive development. In adults the potential role of DHA in neurological function still needs to be investigated in depth. Regarding cardiovascular risk factors DHA has been shown to reduce triglyceride concentrations. These findings indicate that future attention will have to focus on the adequate provision of DHA which can reliably be achieved only with the supply of the preformed long-chain metabolite.

Try his other study as well:

Gerster H.: The use of n-3 PUFAs (fish oil) in enteral nutrition.
Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1995;65(1):3-20.

Severely ill patients in need of enteral nutrition support must obtain all essential nutrients in at least the amounts recommended for daily intake (RDA) by healthy populations. Until recently essential fatty acids have been entirely omitted from enteral solutions or included only in the form of n-6 PUFAs which are structurally important for cell membranes and play a significant role as precursors (esp. arachidonic acid, AA) of eicosanoids (prostaglandins, thromboxanes, leukotrienes). However, in the absence of n-3 PUFAs, these eicosanoids may produce exaggerated effects in acute stress responses causing immunosuppression, platelet aggregation and excessive or chronic inflammation. n-3 PUFAs act as precursors of complementary eicosanoids which counteract the exaggerated responses of AA-derived eicosanoids. Therefore, n-3 PUFAs should be part of any optimally balanced diet and must be included also in enteral solutions. Since the transformation of the n-3 parent fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is slow and unreliable, it is necessary to provide them as preformed nutrients as they occur in fish oil. The British Nutrition Foundation recommends a daily intake of EPA and DHA in amounts corresponding to the intake of 3 to 4 g standardized fish oil. The requirements can also be covered by the weekly consumption of 2 to 3 portions of fatty fish. Preliminary clinical trials have shown certain beneficial effects of fish oil intakes in diseases associated with inflammatory reactions such as rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease, in conditions with impaired immune competence such as burns, post-operative situations and cyclosporine treatment after renal transplants, and in conditions with enhanced platelet aggregation such as after coronary angioplasty. While these findings must be verified in strictly controlled trials, the intake of fish oil n-3 PUFAs in a balanced ratio to n-6 PUFAs can be recommended for all patients including those in need of enteral nutrition support.


Ditch the linseed oil in favor of fish oils.

I dislike flax seed oil for another reason as well: it oxidizes (goes rancid) pretty much the minute it's pressed, and unless it's been refrigerated ALL the way from press to consumer, it's ALWAYS rancid.

And it's never a very good idea to add rancid fats to an already inflammatory body.

In fact, flax seed oil goes rancid so fast that a rag drenched in it heats up, if left to itself. Cottonseed oil does the same. Many a school has gone up in flames because the woodworking evening class teacher hasn't paid attention to what his students have used in their furniture polishings ... and hasn't checked the bins for oily rags, before turning off the lights of an evening.

Update: Comments are now closed.


Dear Henriette, I just came across your web site today and read your comments about flax seed oil. I have been grinding flax seeds and adding a tbsp to my vitamin drink every morning. I keep the whole flax seed in the refrigerator and refrigerate the ground seed. I also take 300 mg of alpha lipoiec acid. Am I on the right track? I do notice a marked improvement in my fingernails since I am doing this. Started more than a year ago.
Also feel it improves my regularity.

You're doing fine.

Dear Henriette, I need to get going on the Omega 3 thats for sure. Something helpful to your readers would be to take the flax seed and soak in water. First wash the seeds off in a strainer and then set in water this causes it to release its nutrients into the water as it sprouts. Just keep this soaking in the refrigerator and then and take it and drink the liquid and or put both in the blender with maybe walnuts and whatever else. The sprouting this way helps to get those amiono acids released better and hopefully aids in the conversion into the long chain EPA and DHA components. Have you ever tried soaking them? The liguid is silky like an egg yoke and is very soothing to the skin.



Hi Henriette,

Thanks for this article, the problem really is in people trying to pass off specific plant oils as being wonder potions while their benefits are more narrow, albeit very useful

This tendency makes users suspicious of plant oils in general, which is a shame, since most of the plant and vegetable oils are really such useful products

Thanks once again for your efforts...

Bev: aye, but flax seed frog eggs is different from flax seed oil. Granted, you do get fresh oil from freshly-ground flax seeds ... with the mucous-membrane-soothing mucilage.

Vic: agreed, no plant oils are wonder potions.

I take flaxseed oil capsules-1,000 mg twice a day. Is this worthless?

You're better off crushing up flax seed, putting that into water and drinking the resulting frog eggs. And you're even better off eating fatty cold sea fish 2-3 times a week.

I take a fish oil supplement that gives me 1200 mg EPA and 480 mg DHA daily. Is this too much? Should the gelcaps be refrigerated? Is it true that fish oil could raise triglycerides? I just bought some flax gelcaps and was confused about how to determine the ratio of flax to fish. Your site here makes me think I should avoid flax in favor of fish.

Why not ask me about determining the ratio of apples to oranges as well?

Flax oil is not fish oil. As for the rest, ask where you bought your capsules.

you are a bit cheeky really - this site was supposed to be helpful!!!!!

"A bit"? Bummer, missed the mark. Again.

Hi there,

I happen to love the addition of flax to my diet, but that's because I follow all the rules re: grinding and ingesting immediately.

On another note: can you recommend some brands or particualy qualities/ratios to look for when buying omega-3 supplements? I was just at the store and had a hard time deciding. I went with "country life" brand. Thanks!

Sorry, I don't do brands, I do plants.

I had to switch to [deleted] flax/primrose (Omega 3,6 and 9) ([deleted]) oil so that I wouldn't get sick to my stomach. Fish oil capsules are horribly irritating. I threw them out (several hundred.) On the other hand, a tin of sardines, herring or baked wild salmon three times a week is beneficial and yummy. Don't know about mercury in those. DHA is also available in a plant-derived ([deleted]) form from [deleted]. Fish oil without the fish is bleckyuckphooeybleh.

Then there's overfishing, which makes fish oil a better idea than eating fish three times a week.
Oh, and I took out all the various brand names in your post.

Anyway to take just Dha from epa? How long until flaxseed oil goes bad once it's ground?

Is eating ground flaxseed meal that is commercially available still useful? If not, would I still receive the benefits of fresh flax oil if I increased the dosage since I don't have time to grind, fish egg or otherwise? I keep the meal vacuum packed in the freezer to try to hold value. I do like to make it a meal with soy yogurt, almonds and berries however. I've been using 3-4 tablespoons of this preground meal and find the laxative value high. In addition, I've noticed my skin is less dry and that the surfeit of fatty acids has suppressed my longing for bad fats. I found the fish oil tablets too smelly after ingestion. In addition, I try to eat salmon at least 1-2 times per week.

Dunno, how rancid has your commercially ground flax seed gotten while waiting to be bought on the shelf?
You won't get any fats from unground flax seed. Other benefits, sure, it's got lots of mucilage which is soothing to the gut ...
As to soy yogurt, I refer you to this.

Dear Henriette:

Just wanted to let you know that my experience with flaxseed oil has generally been quite positive.

I'm a bodybuilder, and about eleven years ago I complained to the patron of our gym that I was having problems with my joints. It seemed that no matter what I did I was constantly injuring them. Even walking and doing household chores was getting to be a problem. He said that I probably needed to start including oil in my diet.

I started taking a tablespoon of flaxseed oil each day and within two days my joints were back to normal. I didn't have any problems with injuries after that. I also noticed other benefits as well. I had greater endurance during aerobic activity. I had greater strength potential. I noticed that my mood had even improved and I was able to concentrate better.
I also noticed that my hair had become thicker and more healthy.

I'm sure it's not a cure-all but I know that it helped me in a number of ways. I would certainly recommend it to others. You say that fish oil is better. Actually I've never tried it.

Paul D.

I am highly allergic to fish and shellfish. I wanted to start using flax as an alternative. Am I destined to be deprived of my Omega 3's?

You're likely to get much less anti-inflammatory compounds from flax oil than you would get from fish oil.
Do nettles and go for a low-sugar low-carb lifestyle, that'll help.

The assumption that the body can't make DHA and/or EPA from ALA, and that one has to get these from fish/fishoil is a myth. You should take a look at this article written by Udo Erasmus. He's accepted as one of the leading experts on fats and oils in the world.

You'll probably think twice before popping the rancid fish oil pills after reading this article.

One should also remember that the body will make as much DHA and EPA as it needs, and that the conversion cannot be made BACKWARDS (The body cannot convert DHA into ALA). By giving your body the base material, ALA, your body chooses how much DHA and EPA it wants.


A follow-up to my previous post.

Here's a video where Udo Erasmus explains it all (seed oils, fish oils, ALA-DHA conversion etc.) and he explains it all in great detail.

Thanks, Emin.

What's nettles?

Try to search the blog. Or the web. Or any herbal book ...

Taking 1 fish oil gel and 1 flax oil gel twice a day 1000mg each. Top of the line organic brands and what harm can getting both do? Omega3s feed the feel good seritonin, curbing the cravings, moods, allows me to sleep soundly, and the hair and nails are great. At 53 I am starting "the change" and so far not a symptom in site!!! I wish I knew this much about OM3s while the kids were younger, not only for me but for their benifit also.


This is an interesting article. Who Gerster H? Im more inclined to believe in Max Gerson who cured cancer and recommended only flaxseed oil since it was the only option that didn't excacerbate conditions in his patients.

Good article Henriette. I've been reading more and more about this lately. I have a few vegan friends that are hell bent on flax as the answer to everything, so I appreciate the facts in your article - they support my own personal point of view. I also found an article about another study that goes along the same lines.

This time the research was done by the National Institutes of Health. They found that only 0.2% (2 mg) of the ALA was converted into EPA! That definitely strengthens the case for supplementing with fish oil. I found the info here: (deleted).

As far as Udo Erasmus goes, his opinion is tainted - he sells his own flax oil product! I'm sorry, but I'd much rather take my health advice from researchers - not marketers. After much searching, I finally found the ingredient list to his Udo's Choice Oil Blend. I'm really suspicious of products that hide their ingredients. I actually had to download a pdf file from his site where I finally found the ingredients in small type on the bottom of the 8th page!

Ingredients: Flax oil*, sunflower oil*, sesame oil*, medium chain triglycerides (MCT), evening primrose oil*, soy lecithin**, rice bran and germ oils, oat bran and germ oils*, tocotrienols.

Is it any wonder he's against fish oil?

So Henriette, my hat's off to you. You got in right in your first statement, "Marketing droids try to make you believe that their stuff is as good as fish oils. They're wrong, and they know it."

I ditched your spamblog link. Here's the details on said research, which that blog referred to without giving authors, article name or date:

Pawlosky RJ, Hibbeln JR, Novotny JA, Salem N Jr.: Physiological compartmental analysis of alpha-linolenic acid metabolism in adult humans. J Lipid Res. 2001 Aug;42(8):1257-65. Pubmed abstract - Full text on the J Lipid Res. site.

I dont know what to take anymore.. Its too confusing.

hi, you are so wrong and so bitter. i took flax oil for 10 days first time. i did have a very bad hormanal problem with bad smell night persparetion. after 6-7-day it was gane for good. people it is very good. donna

Of late I've been extremely interested in flax...a friend who has cancer sent me Johanna Budwig's book "Flax Oil As a True Aid..." talking about the importance of omega 3's. She specifically refers to the dipolarity of the electric field between fat and protein, especially the unsaturated fats and the sulphur-containing protein substances.
It is really not a complex thing. She makes it very simple. Any denaturing of the fat, by solidfying, heating (!), processing, etc. destroys the electon activity rendering them inert and incapable of capillary activity. This seems to be an important point. She readily admits that fish oil would be the perfect oil, but due to processing, is not active. I called Carlson Labs and asked what temp they process their oil and was told at least 100 degree C. She further insists that the flax oil must be mixed with protein, such as cottage cheese, whereupon it becomes water soluble. The book is excellent for further clarification.

That still doesn't address the fact that you cannot convert more than about 5 % (on average) of the ALA in flax seed oil into EPA and DHA.
Also, you can't make oils water soluble just by mixing them with, say, cottage cheese. Honest. You can make an emulsion (mix very fine drops of an oil in water), which is then water soluble - milk is an example - but Budwig's idea doesn't cut it.

Hi Henriette,

I was seriously considering taking flaxseed supplements but after reading how weak its effect are I was wondering if you could tell me of other sources of omega 3. I do not want to take fish oil due to their high volumes of Vitamin A which can be toxic, do you recommend anything else??

A comment to Aaron's fear that fish oil may contain excessive levels of vitamin A. Fish oil is not the same as cod liver oil which - as the name says - is extracted from fish liver. Fish oil is extracted from fish meat and thus does not contain excessive concentrations of vitamin A or vitamin D.

Dear Henrietta
congratulations on treating the important topic of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids with such circumspection, not falling into the trap of the vegetable oil lobby which is quite powerful.