Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
Mustard: A Flavourful and Healthy Spice
Mustard plants have been part of the human diet for thousands of years. The leaves make tasty greens, and the ground seeds make a hot and flavourful condiment. The leaves and the seeds are nutritious foods with important health benefits.
Mustard plants belong to the family known as the Brassicaceae. Other members of this family include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, horseradish, and wasabi. The members of the family are also known as cruciferous plants.
Besides their great vitamin and mineral content, the main claim to fame of cruciferous vegetables from a nutritional point of view is their high level of glucosinolates. The glucosinolates are converted to other chemicals called isothiocyanates when the leaves or other plant parts are cut or ground. These isothiocyanates may reduce our risk of developing some types of cancer.
Historical Facts Related to Mustard
People in the past discovered that plants in both the genus Brassica and the genus Sinapis can provide us with a tasty condiment that is now referred to as mustard. The plants have attractive, bright yellow flowers and seeds that are beige, brown, yellow, or black. Though the seeds are edible, people probably soon discovered that eating a large quantity of them can cause problems such as abdominal pain and diarrhea. Crushing the seeds in a liquid and using the condiment in small quantities works better.
It’s thought that the name “mustard” comes from the Latin term “mustum ardens”, which means “burning must”. The term refers to the burning sensation produced by eating strong mustard and the unfermented grape juice (called must in English) that used to be added to the ground seeds to make the condiment.
Types of Mustard Seeds
Mustard seeds are most often obtained from three types of plants: beige or yellow seeds from the white mustard plant (scientific name Sinapis alba), brown or yellow-brown seeds from the brown mustard plant (Brassica juncea), and black seeds from the black mustard plant (Brassica nigra).
The yellow seeds have the mildest flavour and are the type that makes most store-bought mustard. Dijon mustard is made from brown seeds. Black mustard seeds are popular in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. They have the strongest flavour and produce the hottest sensation when eaten.
Plain and Flavoured Condiments
Mustard seeds are ground or crushed and mixed with vinegar or another liquid to make the familiar condiment. If you like to eat healthy food, it's a good idea to check the ingredients in a commercial product or to make the condiment yourself. There are some good mustards for sale, at least where I live. Unfortunately, many contain artificial colour to make the yellow appearance more intense.
I like plain mustard, but other types are available. Some varieties that you may encounter include honey, beer, horseradish, and whole grain mustard. The first three condiments are a mixture of mustard and the other substance in the name. The whole grain product contains entire or partially cracked mustard seeds.
According to a National Hot Dog and Sausage Council survey of Americans who eat hot dogs, 71% add mustard to their hot dog, 52% add ketchup, 47% add onions, 45% add chili, and 41% add relish.
Nutritional Benefits of Mustard Seeds
Mustard seeds are nutritious and tasty little packages and make an excellent addition to the diet. Even though people normally eat a small serving of the seeds, their nutritional content may be significant.
One tablespoon of mustard seeds provides a good selection of vitamins and minerals. The vitamins are present at a low level, but the mineral level is better. The seeds are a good source of calcium, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus, an even better source of manganese, and a very good source of selenium.
Mustard seeds also supply us with a small quantity of healthy fat, a small amount of fibre, and a little protein. The fat consists mainly of monounsaturated fatty acids but also contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in approximately equal amounts. Monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids have many beneficial effects in our bodies. The seeds are low in saturated fat.
In order to maximize the nutritional content of a prepared mustard condiment, it may be advisable to choose the most natural and least processed version that contains a high concentration of seeds.
Nutritional Benefits of Mustard Greens
Mustard greens have a peppery taste and are good as a raw salad green or as a cooked vegetable. The younger and smaller leaves are generally the most tender and are the best leaves for eating raw. The oldest and largest leaves are less tender and are best when cooked for a moderate to long time in soups or stews.
The raw greens are a fantastic source of vitamin K (with a one cup serving providing more than 100% of our daily requirement) and an excellent source of vitamin C and beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A in our body. The greens are also a good source of folate and manganese and a significant source of many other vitamins and minerals. Mustard leaves contain fibre and are very low in fat.
If the greens are boiled, water soluble nutrients will leave the leaves and dissolve in the water, so the boiling water shouldn’t be discarded. A gentle cooking method is best for nutrient preservation. Eating a small quantity of a healthy oil or fat with the greens will help the fat-soluble nutrients to be absorbed by the body.
Mustard plants grow wild in many areas. Some people like to collect these plants to eat. If you decide to do this, be very careful with your plant identification. Make sure that you are actually picking wild mustard and not some other plant that is poisonous. Also make sure that the plants aren't growing in an area contaminated by pesticides and pollutants and that not all of the plants in the area are picked.
Facts About Sprouts and Microgreens
Another enjoyable way to make use of the mustard plant is to sprout the seeds at home. The process is easy. The most important point is to keep the seeds moist but not soaking wet. Like mustard seed and greens, the sprouts taste peppery and make a great addition to sandwiches and salads. The seeds can be sprouted on a damp paper towel or in a container that allows for water evaporation or drainage.
The seeds germinate after a couple of days and are generally tall enough to harvest in about a week. They don't have be harvested all at once. A few sprouts can be picked at a time to add to a meal.
Microgreens are very small, as their name suggests, but they are a later stage of the plant's development than sprouts. They are always grown in soil. Unlike the case with sprouts, the seeds of microgreens can't be eaten. Only the green parts of the plant are harvested.
It's always good to have fresh sprouts or greens of any size available in a container or a garden. Freshly picked greens are generally the tastiest and most nutritious form of a vegetable.
Growing Mustard Greens
Full-size mustard greens can be grown if the seeds are planted in soil and have space between them so that the plants have room to enlarge. Seeds should be planted a quarter to half an inch deep and six to eight inches apart. Two or more seeds are generally planted at one point to compensate for seeds that don't germinate. Once the young plants are growing, they should be thinned to nine to twelve inches apart, depending on the size of the plants. Plants that are removed during thinning can be eaten.
Mustard seeds grow well in either a garden or a container. They need full or partial sun and grow best in soil that has had a little compost or nitrogen fertilizer added to it. The mustard plant is resistant to most diseases and pests. It's a cool weather crop, however, and it may bolt at high temperatures.
Bolting is a process in which a plant prematurely produces flowers and seeds and reduces leaf production. The leaves that are produced are small, tough, and bitter. Bolting is caused by an environmental stress and is the plant's attempt to produce a new generation before it dies.
Possible Health Benefits of Eating Mustard
When we chew mustard greens or grind mustard seeds, an enzyme called myrosinase is released from the plant's cells. This enzyme converts the plant's glucosinolates into isothiocyanates.
Research with laboratory cell cultures and in animals has shown that isothiocyanates can stimulate the elimination of carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) from an animal’s body, cause cancerous cells to stop dividing or die, and help the production of proteins that suppress tumour development. It’s important to note that the effect of a substance inside the human body may not be the same as the effect in lab equipment or in animals.
Some surveys in humans have shown that there is a decreased risk of certain types of cancer in people who eat a lot of cruciferous vegetables. It's hard to prove that eating these vegetables is the factor that is actually responsible for the cancer decrease, however. In addition, not all surveys have shown benefits of the vegetables with respect to cancer risk. Eating mustard and its relatives is still a good idea, though. They are a very worthwhile addition to the diet because of their nutrient content.
A Great Addition to Meals
Prepared mustard can add a delicious taste to meals. If you're new to eating the condiment, start with a mild kind and use a small quantity. The isothiocyanates that are made when mustard seeds are broken may be good for our health but are also responsible for the hot, tear-producing sensation that we may experience when we eat the seeds. Eating a large quantity of a strong mustard may burn and inflame the mouth and throat. It's good to "train" ourselves to eat mustard seeds and the milder leaves, though, in order to experience their great nutritional benefits and the pleasure of eating them.
- Mustard information from the Sakatchewan Mustard Development Commission
- Nutrients in yellow mustard seeds from SELF Nutrition Data
- Nutrients in mustard greens from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)
- Information about isothiocyanates from the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University
- Cruciferous Vegetables and Cancer Prevention from the National Cancer Institute
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2011 Linda Crampton
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 20, 2013:
Thank you, Sheila. Greens are so healthy. It's great to have another type to eat. Fresh, tasty mustard leaves from a garden are the best kind!
Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on April 20, 2013:
I a glad to hear that mustard is so beneficial. Hubby and I grow our own mustard plants every year in our garden. We don't make our own mustard but do eat the mustard greens. I sometimes use the milder young mustard greens in salads, but we mostly boil them with a little ham or bacon and use them as a side dish. They are very tasty and I am glad to know how healthy they are. Voted up and interesting! :)
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 08, 2011:
Hi, Anitha. I can’t answer your question with certainty. I’m not aware of any scientific studies that show that mustard is toxic, although it is known that any mustard can be irritating and can produce a burning sensation when eaten in excess, which can lead to difficulty breathing. Black mustard seeds are also reported to cause vomiting when eaten in excess.
In general it’s important to avoid eating an excessive amount of any one food and to eat a varied diet. Scientists haven’t identified all the chemicals in mustard seeds; although they’ve found that beneficial chemicals are present, and mustard seems to be harmless when eaten in reasonable quantities, it’s possible that as in any other food some harmful chemicals could be present as well. I would suggest that you eat mustard seeds several times a week instead of every day until more scientific data is available.
Anitha on November 08, 2011:
Hi, I eat lot of seasoned black mustard seeds on daily basis.I started eating from my 10th std, Now I completed my master's degree. Is it harmful for health? Please advise
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 14, 2011:
Thank you for the visit and the comment, Eiddwen. Mustard is one of my favorite condiments. I like the taste of mustard and mustard leaves, and it's great to know that they have health benefits too!
Eiddwen from Wales on October 14, 2011:
Very interesting and useful. Here's to very many more to share on here.
Take care and have a great day,
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 10, 2011:
Thanks for the great comment, Chatkath, and for the votes! I appreciate your visit.
Kathy from California on October 10, 2011:
Very helpful and informative AliciaC! You really should put all your amazing hubs together into a book! Thanks for sharing all these great tips, this is completely new to me! Up and useful1
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 10, 2011:
Thank you so much for the lovely comment and the votes as well as the tweet and Facebook links, Peggy! I appreciate them all very much. I'm going to try making my own mustard soon. I've read that prepared mustard wrapped in a towel is a great way to provide heat to the skin, but that the mustard shouldn't come in contact with the skin directly, and the towel shouldn't be left in contact with the skin too long, because it can burn.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on October 10, 2011:
Terrific hub! I never thought about making my own mustard but the video makes me want to give it a try. The tip about keeping feet warm was interesting! Voted up, useful and interesting! Going to also tweet and FB this hub.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 09, 2011:
Thanks a lot for the comment and the vote, Movie Master. I like mustard leaves in salads too, although I've only found them in my local farmers market during summer. Luckily I have found a healthy mustard to buy in the stores, but I'd like to try making my own. I'm sure that the fresh version would be even healthier!
Movie Master from United Kingdom on October 09, 2011:
Hi Allicia, I do like mustard leaves in my salads and just recently have developed a real fetish for mustard! I enjoyed watching the video and am going to have a go at making my own.
A great informative hub, excellent and voting up thank you so much for sharing, best wishes MM
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 08, 2011:
Hi, vocalcoach. Thank you very much for the comment and the vote! I appreciate them both. It's great to meet you.
Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on October 08, 2011:
An excellent and informative hub on the history and benefits of mustard seeds. This is new information to me so you have already helped someone by sharing your knowledge. The photos compliment your hub as well as interpreting the information. I will be eagerly reading the rest of your hubs. I voted UP and thank you so much. vocalcoach