Mustard Seeds and Greens as Part of a Nutritious Diet
Tasty and Healthy Plants
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. Mustard leaves and 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. Members of the Brassicaceae 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.
The History of Mustard
It’s thought that the name “mustard” comes from the Latin words “mustum ardens”, which mean “burning must”. The name refers to the burning sensation produced by eating strong mustard and to the unfermented grape juice, called must in English, which used to be added to the ground seeds to make the mustard.
Today plants in both the genus Brassica and the genus Sinapis are referred to as mustard plants. They have attractive, bright yellow flowers and seeds that are beige, brown, yellow, or black.
Types of Mustard Seeds
Mustard seeds are most often obtained from three types of mustard 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). Yellow mustard seeds have the mildest flavour and are the type that makes most store-bought mustard. Dijon mustard is made from brown mustard seeds. Black mustard seeds are popular in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. They have the strongest flavour and produce the hottest sensation when eaten.
Nutritional Benefits of the Seeds
Mustard seeds are nutritious and tasty little packages and make an excellent addition to the diet. One tablespoon of mustard seeds provides a good selection of vitamins and minerals and is a very good source of selenium. The seeds also supply us with healthy fat 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.
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 mustard or to make the mustard yourself. There are some good mustard condiments for sale. Unfortunately, many contain artificial colour to make the yellow appearance more intense.
How to Make a Mustard Condiment
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 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. Best-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.
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.
Mustard Greens as Food
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.
How to Grow Microgreens
Growing the Full-Size 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 they 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. However, it's a cool weather crop and 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.
How to Plant Mustard Seeds
Possible Health Benefits of Eating Mustard Plants
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. However, 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 mustard, however, 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 mustard leaves, though, in order to experience their great nutritional benefits.
Mustard information from the Sakatchewan Mustard Development Commission
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
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Linda Crampton