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A brief introduction to Camelina (wild flax) - a time-tested source of health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids

Camelina (Camelina Sativa) - also known as wild flax, German sesame, or Siberian oilseed - is an ancient oleaginous (oil-bearing) plant from the Cruciferae family, which has been domesticated and extensively used in Europe for several thousand years. The seed oil of Camelina contains an exceptional amount (up to 45 per cent) of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as a unique antioxidant complex making the oil very stable and resistant to heat and rancidity. Unlike any other omega-3 oil, Camelina oil is perfectly suitable for use not only as a well-balanced omega-3 supplement, but also as a health-promoting everyday cooking oil. Combined with a delicious nutty flavor, this extraordinary blend of beneficial polyunsaturated fatty acids and high oxidative stability makes Camelina oil an excellent, versatile overall source of both heart-healthy omega-3 fats and powerful antioxidants, includingCamelina Sativa in bloom tocopherols, carotenoids, and phosphatides. Known as "wild flax" because it is often found growing together with common flax (and also sometimes referred to as "false flax" due to its visual similarity to regular flax), Camelina, while supplying almost as many omega-3 fatty acids as common flax, is much more stable than the latter, and also tastes much better. This is why we call it "the Better Flax".

Omega-3 fatty acids are in the spotlight of today's natural and holistic approaches to human health. These healthy essential fats have been almost entirely forced out of the everyday American diet by the commercialization of our food supply by the food processing industry. In recent years, extensive research and numerous clinical studies have confirmed that omega-3 fats are involved in numerous vital physiological processes in our bodies, and that their deficit may cause or aggravate many serious medical problems and conditions, including atherosclerosis, hypertension, and other cardiovascular problems, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, dermatitis, asthma, ADHD, and even cancer. Therefore, adding a good source of omega-3 fatty acids to one's diet is believed to be a good way of improving or preventing these conditions. The question of what constitutes the best source of omega-3 supplementation is, however, still being widely debated by scientists, doctors and consumers alike.

Fish and fish oils as sources of omega-3 fatty acids: benefits and disadvantages

There are two major known sources of omega-3 fatty acids: certain types of fish (and their tissue or organ fat, also called fish oil or fish liver oil), and a number of plant seeds and their oils (flax oil being the best known one). Fish and fish oils (including cod liver oil) are a fairly decent source of omega-3s. In fact, studies have shown that eating as little as one fish meal a week can reduce the risk of dying from cardiac arrest by fifty percent1. Another advantage of fish and fish oil is that they contain the most nutritionally available variety of omega-3s, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which is converted directly into PGE3 - the compound responsible for most of the health benefits of omega-3 supplementation (more information about how omega-3s work in the human body may be found here).

At the same time, you must be very careful when choosing fish or fish by-products as a source of omega-3s. Fish oil capsulesFirst of all, not all fish contain omega-3s. Only the fatty, cold water fish varieties, such as salmon, sardines, and anchovies, are rich in omega-3s, whereas most other fish species supply little or no omega-3s. Even with salmon, you have to make sure that it is wild and not farm-raised2. Only the salmon caught in the wild has any appreciable amounts of omega-3s, because it gets them from its natural diet. The diet of farm-raised salmon does not allow it to accumulate any omega-3s in its tissues. Besides, eating any farm-raised fish is not particularly healthy, because virtually all fish farms make indiscriminate use of artificial feed, antibiotics, and other toxic substances. Unfortunately, this is an accepted part of the industrial fish farming technology. They even use artificial colorants to make farm-raised salmon look pink rather than its "natural" gray color (yes, farm-raised salmon is "naturally" gray). In fact, when ordering farm-raised salmon, a merchant even gets to pick the exact shade of pink (using the Pantone color-matching guide), which may be fun for the merchant but not too much fun for someone using the fish or its tissue oil to feed her family.

Oils extracted from the body tissues (fish oil) or organs (cod liver oil) of certain fish species are by far the most concentrated sources of long-chain omega-3s (namely, EPA and DHA). Cod liver oil has an additional advantage of supplying large quantities of vitally important vitamins A and D. It is, indeed, an excellent everyday supplement, but, just like with fish, you must be a very careful shopper. There are two major problems with fish oils: contamination with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury, and rancidity.

The issue of contamination is not the one to be overlooked. Modern industrial agriculture produces a huge toxic runoff which goes into our rivers and streams and eventually ends up in the ocean. At the same time, coal-burning power plants are increasingly polluting our atmosphere with mercury (this poisonous metal is eventually carried into the ocean as well). These harmful chemicals tend to accumulate in fish tissues (for instance, mercury accumulates in fish in its most toxic form: methylmercury). The larger the fish - the more PCBs, mercury, and other toxins (like lead and cadmium) will be found in its tissues. This problem is real, and every year it gets worse. For example, the contamination of fish harvested near the Northern shores of Russia got so bad that the Russian government had to ban any and all use of fish and cod liver oils as dietary supplements. More recently, the US government has issued a number of warnings3 cautioning pregnant women and young children against consuming certain species of fish because of mercury contamination.

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Some fish oil manufacturers are trying to solve this problem by putting their products through an elaborate process of molecular distillation - a complex industrial method of oil purification. Although this technology guarantees that the contaminants are driven out of the oil, it significantly increases the cost of the product, and, in the case of cod liver oil, drives vitamins A and D out of the oil, forcing manufacturers to fortify it with synthetic equivalents of these vitamins. Furthermore, molecular distillation does not offer a solution to the second part of the problem with fish oils: rancidity.

Yes, almost any oil rich in omega-3s (including not just fish oils, but flax oil as well) goes rancid very easily, especially when its natural antioxidants are removed by refining or distillation. This process is known as auto-oxidation, and it generates dangerous and aggressive compounds called free radicals, which negatively affect all molecules around them. Millions of good, useful molecules can be destroyed by the generation of a single free radical.

Manufacturers try to counter this effect by avoiding any exposure of their products to light, heat or oxygen, flushing them with nitrogen, or using artificial antioxidants or other preservatives to keep the oils fresh. More often than not, these efforts fail - a fact evidenced by many tests performed on commercially available fish oils. With few exceptions, they become rancid long before you ingest them, making them do more harm than good (this is true for both liquid and encapsulated fish oils).

One more disadvantage of fish-derived omega-3 supplements is that many people, including an ever-growing number of vegetarians, are simply not able to use them because they are excluding all animal products and by-products from their diets altogether. For them, the only viable alternative source of omega-3 fatty acids has been flax oil, a product that has experienced a tremendous growth in popularity in recent years and has become a staple in the diet of many health seekers around the globe.

Flax oil: a rich, but very fragile and rancidity-prone source of omega-3s

In many respects, the popularity of flax oil is well-deserved. It contains up to 57 percent of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that, through a number of metabolic steps called elongation and desaturation (for more information about these metabolic processes and their products, please visit this page), is further converted into EPA and PGE3, as well as DHA. Although the rate of this conversion varies depending on individual metabolism, it is believed that most people are capable of effectively producing EPA, PGE3 and DHA from ALA. In addition to this, ALA has other beneficial effects on the human body. For example, ALA and its metabolic by-products compete with omega-6 fatty acids for metabolic enzymes desaturase and elongase, resulting in the decreased formation of less desirable PGE2 prostaglandins, which are manufactured by the body using the same enzymes. It also decreases the levels of triglycerides and oxidized cholesterol in the blood. Overall, ALA is an important health-promoting omega-3 fatty acid, and flax oil is the richest natural source of it.

Unfortunately, just like many other good things in life, flax oil has its downside. Primarily, it has to do with the problems already mentioned by us when we took a closer look at fish and cod liver oils - namely, auto-oxidation, rancidity, and free radical formation. Bruce Fife, N.D., talks about these unwanted side effects of taking flax oil in his article entitled "The Facts on Flax":

"Polyunsaturated oils, including flaxseed oil, are easily oxidized. When it oxidizes it kicks off a series of free-radical chain reactions that affects all molecules around it. Millions of molecules can be destroyed or oxidized by the generation of a single free radical. Cholesterol that is in close proximity to a polyunsaturated oil that is becoming oxidized, as is the case in lipoproteins, will also become oxidized. These oxidized, free-radical damaged oils are absorbed into the lining of the artery walls and contribute to the formation of plaque…

All [unstable] polyunsaturated oils provide a source of free radicals which can damage arterial walls which initiates the plaque-building process. PGE2 derived from vegetable oils constricts blood vessels and increases platelet stickiness, which raises blood pressure and causes further damage to arterial walls. When injury occurs to the artery in this type of environment, oxidized fat is attracted to and incorporated into the injury site. Because platelets become sticky, blood clots easily form on injured artery walls. These clots can grow big enough to block an artery or break off and float down and lodge into a smaller artery. When an artery is clogged, cells are deprived of much needed oxygen, causing tissue death. In the heart it can cause a heart attack; in the brain it can cause a stroke."5

Some opponents of flax oil like to say that it is a novelty product without a history of traditional food use in any culture. This is very untrue. It was, in fact, a widely used culinary oil in Russia for many centuries. It is a well-documented fact, and flax oil supporters are absolutely correct when they invoke it to prove the virtues of flax oil supplementation. However, if one takes a closer look at the traditional usage of flax oil in Russia, a very important detail comes to light. Namely, it turns out that flax oil was only used for food by poorer Russian peasants, and only when there were no other, more stable cooking oils available. In fact, flax oil historically was the cheapest seed oil available in Russia, mostly used for making paint and varnish. Apparently, the problem of flax oil's susceptibility to oxidation was widely known in Russia, and considered important enough to stay away from it by those who could afford better alternatives.

Flax seedsYes, oxidation is, indeed, a major problem with flax oil for which no solution has been offered so far. The oil is poor in natural antioxidants, and starts going rancid as soon as it is pressed from the seeds. Modern flax oil industry takes many precautions to prevent the oil from going rancid. In many ways, these precautions are similar to the measures taken by fish oil manufacturers. Flax oil is often pressed and bottled in an oxygen-free environment and stored in climate-controlled warehouses to preserve its freshness. Some health food stores keep flax oil in the refrigerated section, where it should be. But this is an exception rather than the rule, and, just like fish and cod liver oils, most commercially available varieties of flax oil, both liquid and in capsule form, do get rancid. And even if they don't, there is no way to avoid oxidation and rancidity once the oil enters your body. Once ingested, it inevitably triggers free radical chain reactions, damaging millions upon millions of healthy molecules. Your body tries to stop these reactions with its own natural reserves of anti-oxidants, such as vitamin E, putting these reserves under an unnecessary and undesirable stress. As a result, the benefits of taking flax oil may well be outweighed by the harm done by free radicals and other toxic by-products of lipid oxidation.

Solution: Camelina (wild flax) oil

Considering the above, one inevitably comes to a conclusion that none of the commercially available sources of omega-3 fatty acids is fully satisfactory and completely problem-free. While it is possible to achieve the required level of omega-3 supplementation using either fish and fish-derived products, or flax oil, it would be highly desirable to have an omega-3-rich oil that would also be more resistant to oxidation and free of toxic contaminants. The good news is that such an oil does, indeed, exist. This is the oil of Camelina - the Better Flax!

Although some common names of Camelina (Camelina Sativa) make a reference to flax, and there is even some visual resemblance between common flax and Camelina, the latter belongs to the Cruciferae family of plants. Camelina has been grown in Europe for centuries, and in the Iron and Bronze ages it was an important agricultural crop.6

From the times of the Roman Empire to the Second World War, Camelina oil was a common edible oil all over Europe, and especially in Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia. In Russia, it was much preferred to flax oil because of its better taste and higher stability, and commanded a significantly higher market price.

In mid-20th century, Camelina in most European countries (except in Russia, where it is still an important oilseed crop) was gradually replaced by other oleaginous plants, primarily rapeseed and sunflower, the oils of which are much lower in omega-3 fatty acids. IronicallyField of Camelina Sativa with a tree, the main reason for this was the fact that rapeseed and sunflower oils are easier to hydrogenate, making them more useful for the modern food processing industry. However, nowadays we are witnessing a growing interest in Camelina and its excellent seed oil that was able to withstand the test of time. In addition to Russia, where Camelina never ceased to be an important source of cooking oil, extensive research of this unique healing plant is underway in the countries of the European Community, as well as in Canada and the United States.

Camelina seeds produce a golden-colored oil with a delicate, almond-like flavor, containing up to 45 percent of omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). In addition to valuable omega-3s, it is uniquely rich in powerful antioxidants, primarily tocopherols. At 110mg/100g, its vitamin E (tocopherol) content is among the highest of all natural tocopherol sources. By contrast, flax oil contains only trace amounts of vitamin E.

The fatty acid composition of Camelina oil is also unique and very beneficial in terms of its health-promoting qualities. While being a rich source of ALA, the oil is highly monounsaturated, naturally supplying more than 30 percent of stable monounsaturated (oleic and gadoleic) fatty acids. This significant proportion of monounsaturates (monounsaturated olive oil forms the basis of the healthy Mediterranean diet) further enhances the oxidative stability of Camelina oil, and makes it a more versatile cooking oil.

Finally, Camelina oil is relatively low in omega-6 linoleic acid, resulting in a favorable omega-3/omega-6 ratio of up to 3-to-1. This decreases the potential of the oil to stimulate the formation of less desirable series 2 prostaglandins (PGE2), while maximizing its ability to support the synthesis of health-promoting series 3 prostaglandinsGold of pleasure (wild flax) oil (PGE3).The combination of these important advantages makes Camelina oil the most balanced and desirable source of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation for solving and preventing cardiovascular and other health problems.. While supplying almost as much omega-3s as flax oil, it is highly stable and abundant in vitamin E and other natural antioxidants, as well as beneficial monounsaturated fatty acids. As a result, it does not promote the formation of harmful free radicals. On the contrary, it helps resist their destructive effects by providing powerful antioxidant protection.

The delicate, pleasant taste and aroma of Camelina oil makes it an excellent salad and cooking oil. On our recipes page, you will find many creative ways of using Camelina oil in your kitchen.

If you would like to order cold-pressed, extra virgin Camelina oil, please visit out order page (for a limited time, take advantage of our special flat rate shipping offer). If you want more information or have additional questions, please send an e-mail to our holistic nutritionists at We are looking forward to hearing from you!

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1. Albers, C. M., et al. 1998. Fish consumption and risk of sudden cardiac death. JAMA 279 (1):23
2. A good rule of thumb is that Pacific salmon is almost always wild, whereas Atlantic salmon is typically farm-raised. All canned salmon is wild (farm-raised salmon is too flaky to withstand the canning process).
3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. What You Need to Know about Mercury in Fish and Shellfish. EPA-823-R-04-005, March 2004
4. One fairly interesting vegetarian alternative to fish oils is a recently introduced omega-3 supplement derived from algae. It does not, however, provide any eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). This product only contains docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a metabolic product of EPA. Although this long-chain fatty acid has important benefits of its own, it cannot be converted to PGE3 – the hormone-like compound responsible for most of the beneficial health effects produced by omega-3 fatty acids.
5. Bruce Fife, N.D. The Facts on Flax. Excerpted from the book Saturated Fats May Save Your Life, Piccadilly Books, 1999.
6. Prehistoric Plant Food of Denmark, by Eva Koch, 12 December 1999

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