Is Mustard Good For Your Health?

Hots Dogs and Mustard

Mustard is incredibly versatile. It can be found adding extra zing to a street-cart hotdog, slathered on a roast beef bagel while you enjoy playing at an online casino, or in the finest sauces in Michelin-starred temples of cuisine. But it turns out, mustard might also be much more than just a tasty condiment.

This spicy flavour-enhancer is made from the seeds of a group of plants that have been used in Ayurvedic and herbal medicines for millennia, and modern proponents of diet-based healthcare have hailed it as a superfood.

However, like many tasty foods, mustard derives its piquant flavours from toxins that originally evolved as pesticides. And like other so-called superfoods, it has some clear and uncontroversial benefits, some possible applications that require further study, and some potential dangers.

3 Botanical Relatives

There are three types of mustard, produced by three sub-groups of plant species in what botanists call the Brassicaceae family. Black mustard, or Brassica nigra, may be the oldest form cultivated; it was used in India’s most ancient civilizations, and is believed to be the “mustard seed” to which Jesus referred in his analogy about faith. In the Roman Empire, its seeds were crushed and mixed with wine must, to produce the condiment still popular today.

Brassica nigra does not perform well under mechanical methods of cropping, so most of the mustard grown commercially these days is Sinapis hirta, or white mustard, sometimes called “yellow”, or Brassica juncea, AKA “brown” or “oriental” mustard. All three types have certain compounds in common, however, which relate to the plant’s potential health benefits as well as possible harms.

Benefits And Possibilities

Like all cruciferous vegetables, mustard greens – the leaves and stems of the plant – are a great source of several nutrients and especially fibre. Fibre is perhaps the least-noticed carbohydrate, but it’s vitally important to digestive health. Leafy greens are an important source of fibre, and mustard greens, lightly steamed so that they don’t become bitter, also contain healthy amounts of vitamins B9, A, K, and C, as well as potassium, phosphorus, calcium and magnesium.

Mustard seeds contain a similar range of healthy nutrients, plus selenium and manganese. When they are cracked and mixed with water, enzyme action in the seeds produces new compounds that aren’t present in the mustard plant. The compound sinigrin, a glucosinolate, breaks down into mustard oil, or allyl isothiocyanate. This compound not only gives mustard its pungent flavour, it is also at the heart of many claims about mustard and health.

One of these is that glucosinolates and allyl isothiocyanate can not only treat cancers of the bladder, cancer and cervix, but can also be used prophylactically to prevent them. There have been some studies that support this link, but the science is far from clear or settled. Similarly, mustard’s millennia-old use, in traditional medicines, to improve cardiovascular and respiratory health is being investigated in various scientific studies, but there is no medical consensus yet.

Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that both plant and seeds contain a good dose of antioxidants, which carry well-documented health benefits. Regarding claims that mustard or mustard oil is a cure-all against cancer, wounds, bacteria, fungus and inflammation, however, the jury is still out.

Mustard bottle

Areas In Which To Be Wary

The most controversial claim made by herbalists is that mustard oil, or mustard-seed poultices, can be used to treat psoriasis or contact dermatitis. Glucosinolates are a skin irritant; they can produce redness, burns or even blisters. In the most severe case, mustard essential oil has been known to poison the flesh, causing necrosis.

Mustard preparations are not recommended for sensitive skin conditions. If you’re using a topical preparation like a mustard plaster, make sure it isn’t kept on the skin beyond the recommended time, and remove it immediately if you feel increased skin irritation.

More frighteningly, it is possible to be allergic to mustard, causing a sufferer to go into anaphylactic shock. Even for those without an allergy, eating too much mustard can have a toxic effect, causing vomiting, diarrhoea, numbness in the mouth, gastric or intestinal inflammation and even seizures. Pregnant women should avoid mustard, as a high intake can cause miscarriage, and it’s not recommended when they are lactating, either.

Barring those caveats, however, anyone without a mustard allergy can incorporate both the greens and the seeds into a healthy diet. The key, as always, is moderation, your intake should include enough to get the benefit of its healthy compounds, but not so much that you experience negative side-effects.

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