Mustard oil is a unique, pungent, sharp smelling, astringent oil obtained from the seeds of mustard. It is used as a cooking and massage oil all over the Indian subcontinent and even at some places in Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa and central Asia. Mustard seed oil is also quite controversial because of its high erucic acid content (an unsaturated fat) which has divided the nutritional community as to whether it is good or bad for the heart. We shall examine the advantages of mustard oil for cooking, skin conditioning, hair growth and for use in specific conditions, like diabetes. Moreover, since it is native to the Indus Valley Civilization, it is mentioned in the ancient textbooks on Ayurvedic medicine system and some of its health benefits are quite intriguing.
Mustard seeds are of three colors, depending on which variety of mustard it is.
Yellow mustard – This comes from the Brassica alba variety which is believed to be native to the Mediterranean region. It became popular in Rome as it was used to make a paste by grinding it with fresh grape juice. This culinary practice incidentally gave the mustard its name. Mustard is made up of two Latin fragments – “must” which means fresh wine and “ardens” which means burning or flaming. It denoted the paste which was made in must and had a warm, unctuous tendency. This method of using mustard seeds made its way to a place in France, called Dijon and there it became renowned as Dijon mustard after addition of local culinary flavors. However, yellow mustard, because of its popularity for use in mustard pastes is much less used for expelling the edible oil.
Brown Mustard – This comes from Brassica juncea. It is reddish brown in color. It is the most popular seed used for making mustard oil in India and Russia. It is more pungent than the yellow variety. This one is also called rai or rayi in India.
Black Mustard – It is the predominant seed of North Africa and the Middle east and is also grown in some regions of eastern Europe. It also has reddish undertones and is quite pungent.
Much of the mustard oil comes either from brown mustard or black mustard, and frankly, it is not easy to distinguish among them. They both have similar colors and aromas.
Color and Aroma
Mustard seed oil is a characteristic burnt sienna in color with undertones of light yellow (golden brown) which lend it a warm color. Its aroma is however, its defining characteristic. One whiff of cold pressed mustard oil (which is the purest form and is not refined) is enough to bring tears to the eyes. It is sharp, pungent (to some this pungency may seem acrid, but one starts to appreciate its aroma slowly), warm and agitating. This unique aroma is unseen in any other oil. It is due to a single sulfur laden compound called allyl isothiocyanate.
Properties and the controversies associated with mustard oil
Mustard oil’s therapeutic properties are not as consistent in medical research as other edible oils. It has demonstrated anti-cancer effect on colon cancer formation (in animals).  However, in another study, mustard oil was found to be associated (not directly causing) cancer of the gallbladder. The authors of this study however note that this could be because of the adulterants (harmful chemicals) that are added in its manufacturing by some dubious firms, or because of repeated frying of food items in mustard oil.  It can be assumed that a cold pressed mustard oil without any adulteration would be beneficial because of a small proportion of omega-3 fatty acid in it, which is an essential fatty acid (the body needs it and cannot synthesize it on its own) and is strongly anti-inflammatory, besides providing numerous other health benefits.
Mustard oil is banned in many countries, like the USA, because of its high erucic acid content. Mustard seed oil can contain as much as 42% erucic acid. So, why is it a problem? Well, some research done in the 1970s found a link between heart disease and high levels of erucic acid in animals. But, no conclusive study has proven the link between consumption of oils rich in erucic acid (like mustard and rapeseed oils) and chronic heart disease. Still, some governments have remained cautious and regulated the use of these oils. Even in the USA and EU, oils containing erucic acid can be used, if the proportion of erucic acid is quite low (generally kept below 5%).
People who love to consume mustard oil can actually buy edible oil that is processed to remove much of the erucic acid from it. Research is also ongoing at developing new seed varieties that naturally have lesser levels of erucic acid in the mustard seeds.
If at all erucic acid does cause minor heart problems due to long term consumption, it can be offset by the presence of other heart healthy fats in it, like the monounsaturated oleic acid (omega-9) and the alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3).
In fact, a study conducted in India has highlighted that since the Indian population has shifted to refined and “healthier” vegetable oils, like soybean oil, safflower oil and sunflower oil, instead of the traditional mustard oil, there has actually been an increase in the percentage of people suffering from cardiovascular diseases, like atherosclerosis. This can signify that susceptibility to cardiovascular problems is not majorly attributed to a cooking oil, but to a change in lifestyle from active to sedentary and a shift in dietary patterns from traditional to junk foods. 
In fact, a recent study has noted that since mustard oil has a high smoke point (about 250° C) in comparison to most other edible oils, it has been found to be beneficial in case of heart diseases for Indians.  Many of the oils that have a wonderful fatty acid composition at room temperatures degrade when they are heated to smoke point. So, if you are thinking of deep frying some eatables, mustard oil is the oil to go.
Mustard oil and Diabetes
There is no direct link between consumption of mustard oil as the cooking oil and reduction in markers of type-2 diabetes. However, it can help people with diabetes because it can improve the lipid profile of our blood. Our body and our blood contain healthy fats (like EPA and DHA) and unhealthy facts, like low density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol). Eating food cooked in a healthy and nutritious oil with an ideal omega –3 to omega-6 ratio (also called N3 to N6 ratio), which mustard oil has, is believed to be good for the heart and consequently also aids in diabetes. 
Mustard oil for Constipation
People who use mustard oil for cooking may be unknowingly benefitting from a potent health benefit. It has shown efficacy in alleviating constipation that is brought on as a side effect of certain medications. 
Mustard oil in Ayurveda
Some of the most interesting applications of mustard oil are mentioned in the canons of ayurvedic medicine, beginning from the fathers, Charaka and Susruta. However, the more ancient texts focused more on the vegetable than its seeds or oil.
Mustard oil is used as one of the ingredients in formulations used to treat a variety of skin diseases. This could be due to the anti-microbial nature of mustard oil. The pungent nature of mustard oil is because of the compound allyl isothiocyanate which possesses some antibacterial activity. Another possible mechanism could be that it increases skin regeneration rates because of the presence of vitamin A in it, which is found sparingly in edible oils.
A prominent ayurvedic oil (called Tailam/Taila) is the Marichyadi (Maricadyam) Tailam which is prepared by infusing certain herbs in mustard oil, mainly black pepper (called marich) but many more. It is used for certain skin diseases like eczema and psoriasis. 
Just as the shoulder tends to get frozen and stiff, some people tend to develop a frozen thigh which is quite painful and debilitating. Mustard oil, surprisingly is a powerful natural remedy for this condition.
Apart from this, ayurvedic texts also mention its use in reducing elephantiasis and as an anthelmintic (it helps to expel worms from the intestine). However, these treatments should not be tried without the advice of a registered ayurvedic practitioner. 
Home Remedies Using Mustard Oil
Mustard oil for the Hair
Mustard oil is quite light and low in viscosity. It can be liberally applied to the hair (preferably wet hair) and left for about 2 hours. It soaks the hair nicely and a massage done when mustard oil is present in the hair can help to improve blood supply to the hair follicles. Plus, it is very relaxing if you enjoy the aroma of mustard. After that, it has to be washed off with a lot of water and some shampoo to get the pungent smell off the hair.
Mustard oil leaves the hair silky, smooth and untangled. Dandruff is significantly lowered. It provides fat soluble nutrients like Vitamin A, E and D to the hair as well as some healthy fats.
Cuts and Scrapes
An age-old home remedy for minor cuts is applying a paste of turmeric in mustard oil. Just a teaspoon of turmeric is drizzled with mustard oil and mixed well. This is then applied to the minor injury and kept as is. It stings a bit, but that helps as it acts as an antiseptic.
A Powerful massage for the Gums
Half a teaspoon of ground rock salt is to be mixed with mustard oil and applied on the gums with the help of the fingers. This massage has been used in certain Asian cultures to keep gum diseases like pyorrhea at bay. Now, a clinical trial too has corroborated the efficacy of mustard oil and rock salt massage for periodontitis. 
Nutritional and Medicinal Information
Mustard seed oils are of three types depending on the mustard variety used (yellow, brown or black). The composition of lipids in yellow edible mustard oil is as follows.
|Fatty acid||Carbon notation||Percentage|
|Erucic acid||C 22:1||28 – 53%|
|Oleic acid||C 18:1||13 – 25%|
|Palmitic Acid||C 16:0||3.9 – 5.2%|
|Gadoleic Acid||C 20:1||9.4 – 14.2%|
|Linoleic acid||C 18:2||4.9 – 17.4%|
|Alpha – Linolenic Acid||C 18:3||~6%|
When we compare the composition of lipids in mustard oil, we find that it is very rich in erucic acid. However, do note that the percentage of erucic acid varies a lot. Even in natural mustard oil (mustard whose seed has not been genetically modified or hybridized), we can find erucic acid content going down to about 20%.
Secondly, mustard oil is one of the few edible oils to contain gadoleic acid (which is a long chain monounsaturated fatty acid). It is a healthy fat that is also found in cod liver oil.
Mustard oil contains total vitamin E upto about 1025 mg per kg of oil, depending on the source region. This is about 1 gm per kg. Compare this with the RDA (recommended daily intake) of Vitamin E of 15 mg/kg. One tablespoon of common edible oils weighs around 14 gm. One tablespoon of mustard oil would thus provide 14.35 mg of vitamin E.
Within the Vitamin E, mustard oil mainly contains gamma tocopherol and alpha tocopherol. These two are also the most potent anti-inflammatory forms of Vitamin E.
Out of the total 1025 mg/kg of Vitamin E, the relative proportion of tocopherols is as follows.
|Alpha tocopherol||26.5 %|
|Gamma tocopherol||70.7 %|
|Delta tocopherol||2.8 %|
Importance of Gamma Tocopherol form of Vitamin E
We notice that Mustard oil is gamma-tocopherol laden oil. Gamma tocopherol makes it a powerful antioxidant as it not only scavenges reactive oxygen species, but also reactive nitrogen oxides. These nitrogen oxides activate the inflammation mechanism in our body (via macrophages) which is undertaken by a protein called interleukin –1 beta. This protein then goes on to damage the beta cells of our pancreas. These are the basic cells of the pancreas and are essential for secretion of insulin. As a result, gamma tocopherol helps in preventing the body from type I diabetes. 
The pungency of mustard oil is because of allyl isothiocyanate. It is proven to exert a significant anti-tumor, anti-cancer (of the bladder and colon) and potent anti-inflammatory response.  However, it is also known to be an irritant and may cause contact dermatitis in some persons who are sensitive or allergic to mustard oil.
Mustard oil is rich in micro-nutrients called phospholipids. These are the class of compounds that form the membranes (coverings) of the cells in the bodies of animals. Hence, they play an important function is maintaining the barrier of each cell and controlling what gets into the cell and what doesn’t. On a cellular level, this is an essential function. Most edible oils contain a small amount of phospholipids. But, mustard oil is unique in the sense that it has the highest amount of a special phospholipid called sphingomyelin. This compound forms a part of the protective covering of our nerve cells (neurons) called the myelin sheath . The degeneration of this covering is at the root of various neuro-degenerative diseases, like multiple sclerosis. This indicates that mustard oil may have a role to play in protecting our nerve cells from damage and keeping our nervous function healthy. This is completed by the neuroprotective effects of Vitamin A, vitamin E and Vitamin D in mustard oil.
Vitamin A and Vitamin D
Mustard oil from the brown variety cultivated in the Indian state of Rajasthan also contains small amounts of Vitamin A and D2. However, mustard from most other regions does not contain these vitamins.
Safety and Toxicity Issues
We have discussed about the minor possibility of high levels of erucic acid in mustard oil having a detrimental effect on heart health, although it is still a conjecture and not yet proven. But, mustard oil is known to cause allergic skin reactions when applied topically.
The compound allyl isothiocyanate is a known activator of a channel in the body called as TRPA-1. It activates the nerves that are responsible for conveying signals of pain. It is due to this mechanism that we tend to tear up when we smell unrefined cold pressed mustard oil. However, this is not something that is caused by mustard alone. Even olive oil has a compound called oleocanthal that activates such nerves and leads to a stinging irritation in the throat. 
When buying mustard oil, one should note the variety of mustard from which it is made. It is important to buy from a reputed edible oil company so that it conforms to the food safety standards and thus has nil adulterants. One should prefer the cold pressed mustard oil (also called kacchi ghani) which means that it is extracted by mechanical process using unheated seeds.
- Chemopreventive effects of dietary mustard oil on colon tumor development. Dwivedi C. et al. Cancer Letters.
- Association of mustard oil as cooking media with carcinoma of the gallbladder. Dixit et al. Journal of intestinal cancer.
- Food Standards Australia. Erucic Acid in Food.
- Choice of cooking oils–myths and realities. Sircar S and Kansra U. Journal of the Indian Medical Association.
- Rastogi et al. Diet and risk of Ischemic heart disease in india. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
- Diabetes Dislipidemia. Jonathan D. Schofield et al. Diabetes Therapy.
- To Study the Beneficial Effect of Mustard Oil and Salt Massaging With Oral Prophylaxis in Patients With Gum Diseases. Trishna Mahpsekar, Govt College of Dentistry, Indore.
- Characterization of two models of drug-induced constipation in mice and evaluation of mustard oil in these models. Kojima R et al. Pharmacology 2008.
- Lipid composition of mustard seed oils (Sinapis Alba L.). G.A. Antova et al. Bulgarian Chemical Communications.
- What makes Gamma Tocopherol superior to Alpha Tocopherol? Lyle Mc William, Life Extension.
- Allyl Isothiocyanate – PubChem.
- TRPA-1 Wikipedia.
- Mustard and its uses in Ayurveda – niscair
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