Never mind soy milk, oat milk, almond milk, hemp milk, pea milk, or any other kind of non-dairy milk made from plants, trees, or weeds.
The new milk on the block makes those look like 98-pound weaklings.
It’s flax milk developed on a Manitoba farm near Angusville, east of Russell. It’s been green-lighted as a functional food by Health Canada, with help of scientific research at St. Boniface Hospital’s Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine (CCARM).
The flax milk has been delayed by COVID but is likely to hit store shelves by the summer of 2021.
“From a nutritional standpoint, it blows oat and almond milks out of the water,” said Dr. Grant Pierce, a principal investigator at St. Boniface’s CCARM.
Flax, of course, has an amazing ability to lower the risk of heart diseases. The problem until now has been finding a tasty, easily digestible food using the amount of crushed flax needed to get its health benefits.
There are two stars to this story. One is the Pizzey family, under company name Pizzey Ingredients Inc., who have been milling flax on their farm since 1991. They are now bringing flax milk to a retail store near you.
The other star is St. Boniface Hospital’s CCARM. CCARM started in 1999 as the first nutraceutical-functional food research laboratory in Western Canada. Pierce was one of the founders.
CCARM is unique in two ways. One, it’s a collaboration of a hospital (St. Boniface Hospital), two universities (University of Winnipeg and University of Manitoba), and the national agriculture department, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). You won’t find that anywhere else in the world, Pierce said.
Two, it’s unique by the range of work it does. To the farm audience, think of CCARM as a vertically integrated research centre. It begins with research into cell molecular research on a plant’s natural abilities. From there, research moves into isolating plant traits and researching their impacts on tissue and lab animals. Once that’s done, it starts testing on people. It performs human trials on healthy people and hospital patients who are being treated for chronic illnesses like heart disease or cancer.
Explained Pierce: “We really go from the molecular level right through to major clinical trials that are double-blinded, placebo-controlled, the way a drug company like Pfizer would do…to answer questions you and I want to know: Does it stop heart attacks? Does it prevent stroke? Does it have an impact on cancer?” Pierce was executive director of research at St. Boniface Hospital for 15 years before returning to a purely research role in 2021.
The purpose behind nutraceuticals and functional foods is not so much treatment of illness as prevention of illness. CCARM at St. Boniface Hospital, and the University of Manitoba Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals (RCFFN), seek to exploit and isolate plant properties that will reduce people’s risk of disease, particularly chronic disease, as well as promote ongoing health.
That may sound a lot like what drug companies do, and, in a way, it is. Pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars developing new drugs. But drug companies don’t research the health benefits of plants and foods because they can’t patent them. And if they can’t patent them, they can’t monetize them.
So centres like CCARM and RCFFN were set up to fill the void. Functional food is food with an extra health boost, like the bran in a muffin. A nutraceutical is an extract like Echinacea or cod liver oil and is often used as a dietary supplement.
CCARM is special and goes above and beyond most such centres. Another example of its uniqueness is the University of Winnipeg recently hired an agricultural-health economist so CCARM doesn’t just look at health benefits but economic ones, too. “The federal government wants to know what other impact is our research having beyond health. Is it having an economic impact?” said Pierce. For example, if a product like flax has a health benefit, that increases demand, and that generates economic activity for farmers, processors and grocery stores. As well, AAFC has increased funding “in a big way” for CCARM to become more national in scope, and to take on work with businesses, like research on potato starch for Manitoba Starch Products in Carberry. “(Manitoba Starch) came to us and said we use (potato starch) on animals but what about humans? Can we expand the market to the human market?” said Pierce. The answer was yes, after research showed potato starch had significant health benefits for people, too. AAFC does a productivity review of CCARM every five years.
CCARM has ongoing research projects on crops like pulses, canola, lingonberries, buckwheat and others. Roquette, a French company that recently set up shop in Portage la Prairie, toured the CCARM facilities before making its decision where to build its $600 million plant. Pierce likes to think the laboratory and its food health research on pulses had something to do with the French food ingredient giant choosing Manitoba.
CCARM includes about a dozen principal scientific investigators and about 50 support staff.
PIERCE HAS BEEN researching the health benefits of flax for 20 years. He got into it partly because he doesn’t like fish and wondered how else people like him, and vegetarians, could get their store of omega 3 fatty acids. He became intrigued with flax because of its high omega 3 content. Flax was the first long-term research project at CCARM and the research is still going stronger than ever today.
Pierce had a problem, however. The magic number for flax is 30 grams. That is, his research showed that’s the amount of crushed flax per day needed—two to three heaping tablespoons—for the body to receive bonafide health benefits, the biggest one being a 50 per cent reduction in heart disease and strokes among people with high blood pressure. However, flax has a nutty flavour but not a lot of taste. You could put it in baking but that’s a lot of flax and it’s hard to make a good-tasting muffin with that flax in it. Same with bread. The alternative was getting people to put two to three heaping tablespoons of crushed flax on their cereal. People found it challenging to eat that much flax and many stopped. Pierce needed a way to make flax more palatable.
That’s when Glenn and Linda Pizzey stepped up.
It was natural for Glenn and Linda to come into contact with Pierce as they are all deeply invested in flax. The Pizzeys have been milling flax on their farm for three decades. But it was never their intention to put flax milk into the retail market. They gave up on the whole food market in 1997 and have focused on the ingredient market ever since. One of their markets is selling their finely crushed flax to businesses that make healthy smoothies.
When the Pizzeys heard of Pierce’s problem, they had an idea. Their flax powder was soluble enough to make it into a beverage. Maybe they could put it into milk so that it would be easier for people in Pierce’s clinical trials to digest. After all, everyone and their dog was making plant-based milk. A flax milk would help the St. Boniface research centre conduct its clinical trials.
One of the Pizzeys’ daughters, Mary, a food scientist based in Rogers, Minnesota, just west of Minneapolis, devised a way to make a flax milk. Then they discovered something else.
Mary and her father, Glenn, rented a food laboratory in the U.S. and went to work. They thought they were producing a milk that contained about seven grams of flax per serving. That was OK. It just meant people would have to drink a lot of milk daily to get the health benefits—four cups. People might have to run to the washroom more often but at least it would keep their hearts in good shape.
The Pizzeys made an error, however, that turned out very fortuitous. They mistakenly doubled the amount of flax in the mix. They never thought that much would be soluble. They were wrong. They produced a milk with 15 grams per serving. That means people would no longer have to have their mouths caked with flax powder when they eat their cereal every morning. They just have to drink two glasses of milk per day. That’s nothing. That’s normal. And that’s how you stumble across a potential breakthrough food product.
“Lo and behold, it worked,” said Linda. “We then realized we had a really good product for retail sale.”
That highlights another problem with non-dairy milks. There isn’t a lot of the advertised plant in most of those beverages other than the protein. With the Pizzey product, it’s loaded with the advertised product, flax. “It is the only one (among non-dairy milks) that can say that,” said Linda. “The unique thing about flax milk is you’re getting a lot of the flax in it.”
Distribution has been tough so far. The only retail outlets selling their flax milk at the time of this writing were in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island. The problem was affordable transportation as their milk had to be refrigerated.
Now they have gone to tetra packs so the milk doesn’t have to be refrigerated until the customer opens the container. The Pizzeys can’t make tetra packs on their farm so they have outsourced production. The first batches of flax milk were made in Texas, but plans are already in place to move the operation to Minnesota. It will be much easier to distribute flax milk in tetra packs and it can even be sold on Amazon.
The flax milk seems like a bit of a lifetime achievement reward for the Pizzeys for all their work developing flax products. The Pizzeys, largely because they were pioneers in crushing flax for food back in the 90s, use entirely self-made equipment and developed a way to crush flax into an extremely fine powder that makes it so soluble.
“We’ve been the ones that had to learn the industry. We built our own pasteurizing equipment, our grinders. The only thing bought off the shelf were sifters. Everything else we built ourselves,” Linda said.
Pierce at St. Boniface described the family as “wonderful people” and “super-knowledgeable in flax, probably more than anyone in the province.”
CANADA GROWS ABOUT 40 per cent of the world’s flax, making it the world’s largest producer. It is primarily grown for industrial use as linseed oil in the paint business. Of Canada’s portion, Saskatchewan is by far the largest producer.
Manitoba once grew more than a million acres of flax annually. In 1965, farmers grew 1.35 million acres, the most ever seeded in the province. It dipped and then rebounded to 1.25 million acres in 1979. It has steadily trended downward since the 1990s. In 2020, Manitoba farmers seeded just 65,000 acres. The lowest level was 37,500 acres in 2018.
Eric Fridfinnson, Arbog farmer and director of the Manitoba Crop Alliance’s flax committee, was asked why that is.
Reasons include large farms wanting to simplify their crop rotations and flax is not as easy to grow in terms of fewer herbicide options, he said. Flax also includes extra management in having to deal with the straw.
“Some of the large farms, if they have to cover 10,000 to 15,000 acres, they have to just go. They don’t have time to be slowed down dealing with flax straw,” he said.
Another reason is the arrival of soybeans in Manitoba, which is a simpler crop to grow and easier to sell. With flax, a producer has two windows, one in spring and one in fall, to sell flax, but that’s not the case with soybeans. “Soybeans are a lot like canola in that you can sell it every day of the year,” said Fridfinnson.
Flax for human consumption has been increasing but it’s not a big market, at least not yet. The big market for flax was once Europe, where the oil is used in the paint industry and to make linoleum and inks, while the meal made a premium feed for livestock. In time, the market shifted to China, where much of the flax was used for direct human consumption and as feed to enhance omega-3 rations in eggs and meat. That is being done with North American eggs, too.
The problem is when either Europe or China made up most of the flax market, they would account for at least three-quarters of Canada’s flax purchases, making flax growers reliant on a single market and any fluctuations would have a major impact. In more recent times, China is backing off purchases but Europe is coming back, along with new demand in places like Japan and Mexico, making for a more solid foundation to the market, Fridfinnson said.
The food market is an intriguing development for growers, however. “It’s getting to be a bigger part of the market all the time,” said Fridfinnson, who believes the food market will continue to grow. As well, the market for feeding flax to livestock to boost omega-3 fatty acids in eggs and milk and meat is growing. Flax meal is also entering aquaculture, which is somewhat ironic since fish is a major source of omega 3, too.
Meanwhile, prices at this writing midway through the 2020 – 2021 crop year were very high: $20 per bushel at elevators around Winnipeg, Fridfinnson said. “People buying for human consumption are paying a little more, and those kinds of prices attract interest. We may well be seeing more acreage” in 2021, he said.
Linda Pizzey is certain of it. “I think you’re going to see an increase, and it’s due to these markets, it’s not because of the crush market,” she said. Their family farm grows flax but not unless prices are favourable. “The food industry is what’s keeping up prices right now,” she said.
Today, the Pizzeys have 20 employees, not counting their three daughters in the U.S. who act as consultants. The daughters co-own a small company called Manitoba Milling Co. Mary, the food scientist, is based in Minnesota, and Julie, a lawyer, is based in New York and does contract work and makes sure Pizzey products comply with American regulations. The third partner is the oldest daughter Lisa, who is a pharmacist, and that’s not far removed from the functional foods industry the family is in either. Her pharmacy background provides the company with valuable insights. Their son, Jeff, runs the farm.
“We were lucky,” Linda said about the children’s involvement in the family business.
Neither can the Pizzeys say enough about the St. Boniface research program. “We’re very, very, very excited about what’s going on there. They’re top notch,” she said.
FLAX RESEARCH AT St. Boniface’s CCARM began in 1999, and Pierce quickly discovered that high omega-3 content wasn’t the oilseed’s only distinguishing feature.
“The more I looked at flax, the more I thought this is a bit of a wonder food,” he said. “It has three components, unlike other food products: it has the omega-3 fatty acids; it has high fibre, (absorbing bad fats) which reduces cholesterol; and it has a high concentration of antioxidants, and oxidation is an important component in most diseases. It’s a perfect recipe for attacking cardiovascular disease.”
CCARM’s animal-based studies “provide really strong evidence that flax diets not only influence vessels with hypertension, which causes most heart attacks, but it also directly influences the heart to reduce the size of heart attacks,” said Pierce.
Some of the studies directed by Pierce at St. Boniface include a year-long, double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized trial using people with cardiovascular problems. It found decreases in blood pressure that correlate to a 50 per cent drop in heart attacks and strokes.
It also has a relaxing effect on the muscle lining in the arteries, which helps prevent blockages. That is, a flax diet improves the blood vessels’ ability to dilate and contract while carrying blood. The explanation to that is kind of cool.
Normal blood pressure is 120/80 millimetres of mercury. The 120 is your systolic—when the heart beats and pumps the blood and expands the vessels. The 80 mm diastolic is when your vessels relax and contract after each bubble of blood has passed through. Some people have higher systolic, say 150, and higher diastolic, say 100. Flax was shown to reduce the high systolic by 15 mm, and the diastolic by 7 mm, over a six-month ingestion period in hypertensive subjects.
Those are incredible numbers. One millimetre would be a big difference. Drugs and the omega-3 fatty acids in fish can only reduce levels by four millimetres. In fact, flax can reduce both cholesterol and blood pressure at the same time. No drug in the world can make that claim.
Even if you don’t have high blood pressure, your body will still get oodles of benefit from flax. Flax reduces cholesterol levels by about 10 per cent. It also reduces fatty blockages in your arteries that cause strokes and heart attacks. It slows and will even prevent the production of those plaques that result in blockages. It also fortifies the heart against an arrhythmia, meaning an irregular heartbeat. It’s the arrhythmia in a heart attack that usually kills the patient.
Some new research is being performed on flax’s ability to assist with cancer therapy. Women who have breast cancer and are taking chemotherapy can become more susceptible to heart disease. A flax diet is demonstrating a remarkable reduction in mortality. Flax is even being tested on whether it can impact the rate at which Alzheimer’s disease deteriorates the brain. It has shown positive benefits for Type 2 diabetes patients.
Some personal care homes (PCH) in Canada have tried incorporating flax in the diets of residents, including Misericordia Place in Winnipeg. Misericordia purchased its flax from the Pizzeys for some time. At a PCH on the East Coast, a director put flax in the diets of residents and found many people didn’t need their medication for constipation anymore. Constipation is a common complication as people become very elderly.
There is less and less mystery that flax has a pronounced impact on the human body. More of a mystery, at least to Pierce, is why flax consumption hasn’t taken off yet with all that is now known so far. “Heart disease is the No. 1 killer (accounting for about 30 per cent of deaths in Canada annually). Why aren’t you taking it?” Pierce asked.
Part of the problem is more products are needed that have crushed flax—the whole seed just passes through the body, so it must be crushed to unloose the benefits. Maybe flax milk will be the game changer.