At present, evidence of such benefits from phyto-estrogens is circumstantial…“it is encouraging but not definitive,” says University of Toronto professor of nutrition, Lilian Thompson. Definitive conclusions will have to await additional human clinical data.
Hormone Therapy: Risks and BenefitsBreast cancer kills about 45,000 women every year, 70% of them post-menopause. For men, prostate cancer kills about 37,000 per year, 81% of which are over 65. These cancers appear to be associated with elevated levels of sex hormones—estrogen in women and testosterone in men. It is against this backdrop that the recent publication of a study linking elevated risks of breast cancer in women to post-menopausal hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has kindled interest in natural phytoestrogens, such as lignans from flaxseed.
Natural PhytoestrogensBeginning in the early 1980s, nutritional and medical studies suggested that certain plant compounds exhibit weak sex hormone-mimicking behaviors. Epidemiological studies indicated that people with elevated levels of serum lignans exhibit lower occurrences of certain cancers and cardiovascular disease. A number of studies suggest that phytoestrogens mimic the action of estrogen hormones at cellular binding sites—essentially fooling the body that it is receiving “hormone therapy.”
University of Minnesota nutrition professor Joanne Slavin recommends that consumers interested in consuming phytoestrogens use “whole foods sources of phytoestrogens rather than isolated compounds, since we don't have research studies to help with dose and safety issues.”
New Product DevelopmentMany consumers and product developers are not awaiting more human clinical data. “We've noticed an absolute upsurge in interest in flaxseed, especially in our high-lignan NutriGra-d flaxseed, by people interested in natural sources of phytoestrogens,” says Linda Pizzey, president of Pizzey's Milling, Angusville, Manitoba.
For Effingham, Ill.-based Hodgson Mill Inc. (see www.hodgsonmill.com), flaxseed's omega-3 oil content remains the main draw. “The average consumer recognizes the benefits of omega-3 but still struggles with 'lignans,' suggests Robert Weishaar, food technologist. “It's still a new concept.” Hodgson Mill makes a wide range of natural grain-based products. Flaxseed's flavor and texture make it easy to incorporate into a variety of products, from hot cereals to pastas, he adds.
Whether the nutraceutical-HRT link ultimately proves to be lignans, dietary fiber or omega-3 oils, look for more flaxseed products to reach consumers.
“I am very positive on promoting foods high in phytoestrogens such as flax, soy and other high-fiber foods, says Slavin. “Consumers are interested in natural remedies...healthy foods have a great future as an alternative for drugs.”