July 1, 2017

By Virender Sodhi, MD (Ayurveda), ND

Mustard Oil, the Olive Oil of India

Mustard oil (known as “Sarso ka tel” in Hindi) is a traditional edible oil used in India for centuries. Mustard oil is used in Indian cooking for preparing pickles to dry vegetables to curries to fried foods. It is particularly common in the Bengali cooking as well as used for cooking in parts of Gujarat, Assam, Orissa, Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, and other parts of India. In Indian kitchens, mustard oil is like the olive oil of India, the “king of all oils.”

There is some confusion between mustard oil and adulterated mustard oil with argemone oil. The consumption of adulterated mustard oil with argemone oil can be toxic and causes oxidative stress and death of red blood cells in humans. The argemone oil in mustard oil can be injurious to human health (Babu et al. 2007). Argemone seeds are adulterated in mustard oil for profit.

Mustard oil is extracted via cold compression of mustard seeds. Another method is steam distillation of mustard seeds immersed in water. Either black or white mustard seeds are used to grow mustard greens. They are comprised of an enzyme known as myrosinase or a glucosinolate known as sinigrin. When exposed to pressure or heat, myrosinase and sinigrin react, and in water, they form allyl isothiocyanate or normal isothiocyanate. Allyl isothiocyanate was considered bad, but new research is showing it to be cancer fighting. Traditionally, cold pressed oil (Kachi ghani) was used. Steam distillation yields more oil, but is not the best for health.

Mustard Oil in the United States

A decent quality mustard oil was difficult to find in the United States until recent times. Usually, the Indians would carry it to America from India. Mustard oil is now imported from India, and it is available in certain ethnic stores for almost $5 a liter. Even though mustard oil is sold as a cooking oil, most mustard oils in the United States have a warning that it is for external use only.

Since the 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration has banned the import and selling of mustard oil as a food item because research shows that certain mustard oils contain a compound known as erucic acid. Erucic acid has shown to cause heart problems such as myocardial lipidosis and heart lesions in laboratory rats. In a study, the erucic acid content was determined in numerous mustard oil samples from Germany and Australia. Seven out of nine mustard oil samples had more erucic acid than the established maximum levels. The erucic acid content was between 14% and 33% (Wendlinger et al. 2014). However, many public health and nutrition experts believe that in reality, the potential hazards of erucic acid in mustard oil are founded based on animal studies, and we do not know whether erucic acid is detrimental to human health.

Since the 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration has banned the import and selling of mustard oil as a food item because research shows that certain mustard oils contain a compound known as erucic acid. Erucic acid has shown to cause heart problems such as myocardial lipidosis and heart lesions in laboratory rats. In a study, the erucic acid content was determined in numerous mustard oil samples from Germany and Australia. Seven out of nine mustard oil samples had more erucic acid than the established maximum levels. The erucic acid content was between 14% and 33% (Wendlinger et al. 2014). However, many public health and nutrition experts believe that in reality, the potential hazards of erucic acid in mustard oil are founded based on animal studies, and we do not know whether erucic acid is detrimental to human health.

Most of the packaged foods in the United States are bad for you. One exception is the food condiment mustard, made from mustard seeds. Some studies indicate that mustard is one of the few whole seed superfoods consumed in American society in combination with many junk foods such as burgers. The mustard relish is an antioxidant, an anti-inflammatory, and acts as a laxative. The allyl isothiocyanate in mustard actually is scientifically known to block cancer-causing compounds in processed meats. A study shows that in a rat bladder cancer model, oral mustard seed powder at a dose of 71.5mg/kg (with a sinigrin dose of 9 μmol/kg) inhibited bladder cancer growth by 34.5% (Bhattacharya 2010). The mustard relish has selenium, another cancer protector. Consuming a teaspoon of mustard boosts the metabolism by 20% to 25%, thus, aiding in weight loss. The phytonutrients in mustard, glucosinolates, help fight gastrointestinal cancer. The sulfur in mustard is beneficial to the skin, enhances circulation, and cuts down inflammation.

Mustard Oil compared to Olive Oil and Canola Oil

Mustard oil has low saturated fat in comparison to other cooking oils. It has a pungent, sharp, and nutty taste. It contains about 60%-69% monounsaturated fatty acids: 5- 33% erucic acid and 12% oleic acid. It has approximately 21% polyunsaturated fats: 6% alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid, and 15% linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid. It has 12% saturated fats.

Olive oil is derived from the olive fruits and olive seeds of olive trees. It is commonly used in Mediterranean cooking, and it has an exquisite flavor. Olive oil is rich in calcium, iron, vitamins A and C, monounsaturated fatty acids, and natural antioxidants. It contains 55% to 83% monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid, oleic acid. It has 3.5 to 21% polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid, linoleic acid. It has 7.5% to 20% saturated fatty acid, palmitic acid. It has 0.5% to 5% saturated fatty acid, stearic acid. It contains 0 to 1.5% polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid.

Canola oil comes from genetically modified rapeseeds. The original rapeseed oil contained high levels of erucic acid. After 1970s, through natural cross breeding from rapeseed plant, canola plant was formed in Canada. The canola oil (Canada Oil) used presently comes from canola seeds, not rapeseed plant. It is made up of 61% oleic acid, 21% linoleic acid, 9% to 11% alpha-linolenic acid, 7% saturated fatty acids, 4% palmitic acid, 2% stearic acid, 0.4% trans fats, and 0.01% to 0.1% erucic acid.

While olive oil has a low smoking point, mustard oil and canola oil have a high smoking point, which means that mustard oil and canola oil can be used for deep frying and high heat stir frying, given that the temperatures are below 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Although I do not recommend deep frying at all, if any, it should be very occasional. Keep in mind that olive oil and mustard oil are considered superior to canola oil in terms of their quality and health benefits.

Compared to olive and canola oils, mustard oil is considered best for the heart. Unlike canola oil, it is free of cholesterol and trans-fats, which are associated with a higher risk of coronary artery disease, a major reason of death in the West. Mustard oil is low in saturated fats and high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. It is a powerful antioxidant. It is best when consumed in its raw form.

Olive oil lowers the risk of breast cancer. It helps maintain healthy cholesterol. It guards the liver. It protects against Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. It helps prevent acute pancreatitis. It shields from ulcerative colitis.

On the other hand, mustard oil lowers the risk of Cardiovascular Disease. It is good for massaging. It promotes healthy skin, teeth, and hair. It is antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory. It aids with digestion. It reduces the risk of cancer. It boosts immunity and helps fight colds. It relieves joint pain. It calms and invigorates the body.

Let’s look at the health benefits of mustard oil in detail.

Health Benefits of Mustard Oil

Pure, unadulterated mustard oil has vast health benefits. It improves heart health. The oil is rich in monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, which help lower bad LDL cholesterol and increase good HDL cholesterol. Improvement in cholesterol decreases triglycerides or blood fat levels, thereby, preventing hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, and obesity in addition to enhancing heart health.

In clinical trials, mustard oil has shown to treat periodontal disease or gum disease, which is a chronic inflammatory condition that destroys the periodontium and causes tooth loss. It is a huge issue in developing and underdeveloped countries and impacts over 80% of the populations. In India, people massage their gums with salt in mustard oil, and this improves oral hygiene. Externally, when fused with honey, mustard oil can destroy dental bacteria and may be utilized in root canal treatments.

In Ayurvedic medicine, mustard oil is used as a poultice for massage and a detoxifier. It has anti-aging properties. When massaged into the body, mustard oil can act as a skin antioxidant. It can remove tan and dark spots as well as lightens the skin. Mustard oil is rich in vitamin E, and it shields the skin from free radical damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays as well as pollutants in the environment. It is like a natural sunscreen that prevents skin cancer. Moreover, the vitamin E in mustard oil increases immunity and circulation.

Since mustard oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, it can improve the hair health. Mustard oil is packed with vitamins and minerals which are excellent for hair growth. You can massage mustard oil into your scalp and then cover with a lukewarm towel to help the oil reach your skin and hair follicles. Put it on for about 20 minutes. Since massaging the oil into your scalp increases blood flow, it can promote hair growth. It also hydrates the scalp and helps treat dry and damaged hair.

Mustard oil lowers inflammation-associated pain and has a calming effect on the body. Massaging joints and whole body with heated mustard oil relieves arthritis and pain. It revitalizes and relaxes the body by increasing blood circulation.

Mustard oil has antibacterial properties when taken internally and externally. It has the ability to fight bacterial infections in the digestive tract, colon, and intestines when consumed as a food. It is rich in glucosinolates, which have anti-microbial properties and prevent unwanted growth of deadly microbes. When mustard oil is applied topically, it also has anti-fungal properties, as it contains allyl isothiocyanate, which inhibits fungal growth. Additionally, it has the ability to fight vaginal yeast infections.

Mustard oil has a wide spectrum of health benefits when used as a cooking oil or as a topical agent. Let’s look at the scientific, published research on mustard oil.

Scientific Research on Mustard Oil

Mustard oil is known to protect nerve and brain function. The erucic acid in mustard oil is known for the treatment of X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a rare, genetic disease in mostly boys that causes the breakdown or loss of myelin (which is a fatty covering around the nerve cells in brain). A combination of oleic acid from olive oil and erucic acid from mustard oil, known as Lorenzo’s oil, normalizes the very long chain fatty acids in brain and is a remedy for ALD. In a double-blind study, 12 newly-diagnosed ALD patients were treated using Lorenzo’s oil. The scientists concluded that dietary erucic acid therapy is helpful for ALD patients and may prevent demyelination in some mildly affected boys with ALD (Rizzo et al. 1989).

Although erucic acid is beneficial in the treatment of ALD, research shows that it can be harmful to the liver. A high dose of erucic acid can damage hepatic cells. A group of rats were fed fried mustard oil and the second group was fed erucic-acid free mustard oil. Liver enzymes were measured, and it was found that large amounts of mustard oil has a toxic effect on the liver (Rahman et al. 2013).

Mustard oil promotes excretion and digestion. An investigation was carried out in early 1900s on the metabolism and physiological effects of allyl isothiocyanate and allyl sulfide in mustard oil, which are considered poisonous when ingested in very high quantities. Overall, the addition of allyl isothiocyanate, 0.2 to 0.4 grams per day, and allyl sulfide, 0.5 to 1.0 grams per day, produced a gradual increase in the total sulfur excreted in the urine. The oil metabolized slowly in the body. When large amounts of allyl sulfide are ingested, there might be a noticeable odor of mustard oil in urine, but the amount excreted is small. However, the researchers found no particular increase in the volatile sulfur or total sulfur in the stool, which supports the fact that the mustard oil is absorbed from the digestive tract. It was calculated that on a minimum basis, 40% to 70% of the quantities of mustard oil consumed is excreted in the urine, while the remaining might be excreted through the lungs and the skin (Peterson 1918).

Another study looked at the fatty acid composition and oxidative stability of mustard oil blends for three months at room temperature. The oil blends were prepared using raw mustard oil with selected refined vegetable oils, including palm, safflower, soybean, rice bran, sunflower, and raw sesame oil. The fatty acid composition of all these oil blends were analyzed. It was concluded that no single conventional oil had the desired ideal fatty acid ratio by itself. The presence of mustard oil in oil blends made the oils a healthier choice for many consumers, as mustard oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and has anti-cancer properties. As a result, mustard oil blends might be beneficial for patients suffering from cancer and coronary heart disease (Chugh et al. 2014).

However, it is worth noting that a high intake of mustard oil could itself be a cause of coronary heart disease. Scientists studied the relationship between the intake of mustard oil and ghee and their effect on coronary heart disease in northern India. Shockingly, they found that excessive use of mustard oil can actually increase the risk of coronary heart disease more than ghee (Manna 2016). Most of the Indians deep fry the oil, so the harmful effects may just come from the oxidation of the oil, whereas raw oil can be healthy.

Yet another study found that mustard oil has been associated with a lower risk of metabolic disorders. The aim of the study was to evaluate the possible anti-obesity effect of mustard oil. For ten weeks, wistar rats were fed a mustard oil based high fat diet, a normal chow diet, lard based high fat diet, or lard plus mustard oil based high fat diet. Body weight and food intake were evaluated throughout the experiment. Total fat in the stool of the rats was measured. The body weight gain and adipose tissue mass of the lard with mustard oil diet was less than just the lard diet. The weight gain of just the mustard oil based high fat diet was the least. It was inferred that a mustard oil based high fat diet is associated with anti-obesity effects (Malik et al. 2011).

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of fish oil and mustard oil was carried out in patients with acute myocardial infarction or heart attacks. About 1.08 grams/day of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) from fish oil was given to 122 patients, about 2.09 grams/day of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from mustard oil was given to 120 patients, and 118 patients received placebo treatment. At the beginning of the experiment, the nature of cardiac disease in all three groups was alike. One year later, total cardiac events and nonfatal infarctions were much lower in the fish oil and mustard oil groups compared with the placebo group. Based on this research study, the omega-3 fatty acid fortified fish and mustard oils were beneficial to the health and wellbeing of patients with acute myocardial infarction (Singh et al. 1997).

People eat fried foods all around the world. There has been a tremendous rise in the number of fast food chains over the past 30+ years. Frying our foods at high temperatures gives a nice flavor, but it also causes chemical reactions which affect the chemical and physical properties of fat content in our food. Mustard oil was assessed in deep fat frying ventures. The oil sample was taken every five hours of heating mustard oil in a deep fat fryer. After 30 hours of heating, 5 hours per day, the mustard oil degraded to such an extent that it became a hazard to human health (Nayak et al. 2016). Mustard oil has a high smoking point, so it is safe to deep fry in mustard oil on an occasion. However, if you would like to deep fry in mustard oil, remember to change your oil after every round of deep frying. I suggest drizzling oils such as mustard oil or olive oil on top of your foods at the end of cooking. Fats are very important for our health and provide us with a variety of fatty acids. I do not recommend only using one kind of oil. Rather, we should use a variety of oils in our diet, as each oil has unique composition and using only one kind can cause deficiency of other fatty acids, which are not present in that particular oil.

Conclusion

As an Ayurvedic physician, I recommend the use of mustard oil in cooking, but we must use a variety of oils, not just mustard oil. Avoid adulterated mustard oil with argemone oil, which is highly toxic. As studies in animals indicate, excessive use of mustard oil may be harmful to health due to high amounts of erucic acid. For this reason, mustard oil available in the United States warns that it is only for external use. Nonetheless, erucic acid is also scientifically shown to treat genetic diseases such as ALD. 

Health-wise, there are many advantages of using mustard oil internally and externally: enhanced heart health, improved dental health and treatment for gum disease, good for massage, a detoxifier, better immunity and circulation, valuable to skin, improved hair health, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal, calming, revitalizing, and more.

References

  • Babu, Challagundla Kishore, Subhash Kumar Khanna, and Mukul Das. "Adulteration of Mustard Cooking Oil with Argemone Oil: Do Indian Food Regulatory Policies and Antioxidant Therapy Both Need Revisitation?" Antioxidants & Redox Signaling 9.4 (2007): 515-25. Web.
  • Bhattacharya, A., Y. Li, K. L. Wade, J. D. Paonessa, J. W. Fahey, and Y. Zhang. "Allyl Isothiocyanate-rich Mustard Seed Powder Inhibits Bladder Cancer Growth and Muscle Invasion." Carcinogenesis 31.12 (2010): 2105-110. Web.
  • Chugh, Bhawna, and Kamal Dhawan. "Storage Studies on Mustard Oil Blends." Journal of Food Science and Technology 51.4 (2014): 762-67. Web.
  • Malik, Zafar Ahmad, Amit Goyal, and Pyare Lal Sharma. "Mustard Oil Based High Fat Diet Is Associated with Decreased Body Weight Gain, Less Adiposity and Improved Glucose and Lipid Homeostasis in Wistar Rats." Asian Journal of Clinical Nutrition 3.2 (2011): 43-52. Web.
  • Manna, Soumen. "Comparison of Mustard Oil and Ghee Consumption on the History of Coronary Heart Disease in Urban Population of India." Journal Of Clinical And Diagnostic Research (2016): n. pag. Web.
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  • Singh, Ram B., Mohammad A. Niaz, Jagdish P. Sharma, Rakesh Kumar, Vipul Rastogi, and M. Moshiri. "Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Fish Oil and Mustard Oil in Patients with Suspected Acute Myocardial Infarction: The Indian Experiment of Infarct Survival-4." SpringerLink. Kluwer Academic Publishers, July 1997. Web.
  • Wendlinger, Christine, Simon Hammann, and Walter Vetter. "Various Concentrations of Erucic Acid in Mustard Oil and Mustard." Various Concentrations of Erucic Acid in Mustard Oil and Mustard – ScienceDirect. N.p., 15 Jun. 2014. Web.