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Cancer-fighting mustard oil - The healthy cooking choice
Tuesday, 01 April, 2014, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Venkatesh Ganapathy
Mustard oil has been proven to be the best for one’s heart, according to a 2012 newspaper report.

Different vegetable oils were compared in the research study and the results of the study revealed that mustard oil could reduce the risk of heart disease by 70%. This study was conducted by experts from All India Institute of Medical Sciences and so this research has to be given due weightage. Comparisons were made with olive oil, canola oil and sunflower oil.

Research has also pointed out that mustard oil has cancer-fighting properties. Since it contains lesser amount of saturated fats, the health aspect of the oil gets amplified further. The oil contains life-enhancing antioxidants, which prevent disorders like atherosclerosis, dementia, skin disorders, arthritis and neurological disorders.

The Vitamin E in the oil is also called as alfa tochopherol. As we all know, this is a good antioxidant. The recommended dietary allowance of Vitamin E is 10 mg per day and this is sufficiently met by mustard oil. Glucosinolate, the pungent active matter in mustard oil, has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.

In this regard, mustard oil seems to be unique. It is both cooking oil as well as oil that can be used for beauty treatments. This oil also has medicinal value. Look at the skin of Bengalis? It is glowing only because they eat lots of fish that is sautéed in mustard oil. Bengalis say that the taste of fish is enhanced by the use of mustard oil.

India and mustard oil
Mustard oil is unique as far as its usage is concerned in India. The other variety of mustard is called as rapeseed. All of us know that the famous sarson ka sag – a north Indian dish is made out of mustard. Literally every Indian household uses mustard seeds for spluttering. No sambar, rasam, dal or sabji is ever complete if it is not spluttered with mustard seeds. Yet, use of mustard oil is widely prevalent only in north and east India. People from south and west India are unable to bear the strong odour of mustard oil. This odour in the oil is due to the presence of Allyl isothiocyanate.

Not many realise that mustard oil has been used in India from time immemorial. I recall that a few years ago when I attended a yoga workshop in Mumbai, one of the revered teachers advised us to massage our feet with mustard oil as Ayurveda has proof that this sort of massaging helps improve the vision. Mustard oil is often used as a body oil for massage and is thought to reduce skin dryness, and improve blood circulation, muscular development and skin texture; the oil is also thought to be antibacterial and may even repel insects.

Even though mustard oil was popular in north India, its dwindling popularity can be attributed to availability of other refined oils like cottonseed, groundnut, sunflower, and rice bran. But none can deny that mustard oil has a charm of its own.

In India, the rich mustard growing belt is situated in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

There are expellers to crush the oil seeds and refineries to refine the crude oil. The quality of the mustard oil is greatly influenced by the quality of oil seeds.

It is worth mentioning here that oil behaves differently when heated. It changes texture, color and taste as well as there is some effect on its nutritional value. When oil like mustard oil reaches its smoking point, not only are nutrients destroyed but it may also lead to formation of harmful compounds.

Mustard oil and controversy
In the Western world, mustard (rapeseed) has been caught in the midst of a storm due to the food versus fuel debate. The farmers growing rapeseed were enticed with higher prices for the rapeseed crop so that they could part with the crop for making bio-diesel, which is an eco-friendly alternative for petrol and diesel. Bio-diesel is nothing but FAME (Fatty acid methyl ester).

Critics point out that this is a deliberate attempt to popularise the use of rapeseed for non-food purposes in the West and encourage consumption of other oils like olive oil, canola oil, and corn oil. Even as this debate rages in the West, in north India, mustard oil continues to rule the roost due to its palatability and emotional connect with the users of the oil, though the availability of other oils has dimmed its prospects. Now, the results of the research have revealed that mustard oil is heart-friendly too. As said earlier, the oil contains a substance called Glucosinolate, which is known for its anti-carcinogenic properties.

A contentious issue with respect to mustard oil has been the presence of erucic acid, which is why it was not so popular in the US, Canada and the EU. Some studies say that use of mustard oil is good for the heart only if total calorie intake of the person is less.

What is special about mustard oil?
Mustard oil is low in saturated fats and high in MUFA (mono unsaturated fatty acids) and PUFA (poly unsaturated fatty acids). It also has a high smoking point. Where mustard oil scores over olive oil is due to the fact that mustard oil has an ideal ratio of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids that are useful in reducing complications of the heart.

Mustard oil in its raw form is called as “Kachchi Ghani” and provides the best nutritional benefits.

As mentioned earlier, mustard oil has a distinctive pungent taste. Mustard seeds contain about 35-43% oil. There are different varieties of mustard – black, brown and white.

Let us look at the fatty acid composition of mustard oil. It has 42% erucic acid, 12% oleic acid – both of them are MUFA. It also has 6% Omega-3 alpha linolenic acid and 15% Omega-6 linoleic acid. It has only 12% saturated fats. Not many are aware that mustard oil should not be heated at a very high temperature (close to its smoking point) because at this temperature, the Omega-3 fatty acids may be damaged.

When ground mustard seeds are mixed with water or vinegar, a chemical reaction occurs between the enzyme myrosinase and glucosinolate and this produces allyl isothiocyanate. It is possible to produce an essential oil using distillation and this is called as volatile oil of mustard.

Kachi Ghani pure mustard oil is made from the first press of the mustard by slowly crushing the best mustard seeds in a temperature-controlled environment to retain its pungency and natural properties.

The taste is maintained by extracting the mustard oil at slow speed and at a low temperature in a wooden cask called as “Ghani.” Interestingly, the pungency of this oil enhances the taste of cooked food and also acts as an appetite stimulant. Pickles use mustard oil as it prolongs shelf life. Mustard oil so obtained has been tested to contain 30% protein, calcium, phytins, phenolics and natural antioxidants. Mustard cake, after the extraction of oil, is used as cow feed in north India, especially in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Mustard oil is often used in north Indian cuisines and some of the most famous preparations made in mustard oil include different types of pickles, Bengal fish curry and Bengali dal.

Mustard oil traditionally used in West Bengal is prized for its characteristic flavour (pungent and sharp). Bengalis like fish cooked in mustard oil. Mustard oil is generally available as filtered oil; refined mustard oils are sold as vegetable oil. However, it also contains erucic acid, a fatty acid that has undesirable effects on health when consumed in large amounts. Mustard oil is suitable for all types of cooking including frying, but should be used along with other cooking oils to reduce the erucic acid content. Mustard oil is sometimes adulterated with argemone oil, which is toxic. It is very difficult to tell when this kind of adulteration takes place.

Mustard oil – Health aspects
Regular inclusion of mustard oil in one's diet helps reduce cholesterol levels significantly and when used over time, it helps improve digestion and blood circulation. An increasing number of people who have learned of its benefits are now finding ways to include it as part of their everyday diet. As mustard oil contains Vitamin E which acts as a powerful antioxidant it further enriches the value of mustard oil. However, a few years back there were instances of the oil getting adulterated and hence for some time, the sale of mustard oil was banned.  

The linolenic acid present in abundance in mustard oil is converted in the human body into Omega-3 fatty acids, which helps in preventing cancers of stomach and colon. Some doctors recommend use of mustard oil as a preventive measure. Of course, when people started speaking about superiority of mustard oil vis-à-vis olive oil, then the olive oil lobby started digging skeletons from the mustard oil cupboard. This problem of information overload is bound to haunt us thanks to the advent of Internet. Research is always questioned and labelled as subjective and this can be called as the bane of the research. This sort of discussion was endemic in the West but thanks to the winds of change, India has started discussing these matters. The end result is confusion and chaos about which oil is the best.

Omega-3 in mustard is protective for the heart as it reduces clotting, blood pressure and bad fat. The American Heart Association has suggested that the ratio of monounsaturated fatty acids to polyunsaturated fatty acids should be 1.5 and only mustard oil adheres to this ratio. Besides Vitamin E, the mustard oil also contains Vitamins A & K. In the north, mustard oil is used for head massage. The oil is easily absorbed in the body. Mustard seed powder and honey is considered good for the voice and throat.

Thus, mustard oil is a healthy choice and even though there are regional consumption preferences, an attempt has to be made to create greater awareness about the benefits of mustard oil consumption. The cutting edge research has to come from the stable of oil technologists. There are associations like OTAI (Oil Technologists Association of India) that should stimulate research efforts to bring out the unbiased truth about mustard oil and its beneficial effects. Academic research needs to be encouraged by the government. Oil companies sponsoring such research will cause aspersions on the quality of research, hence the research has to be independent and funded by the government.

The entire edible oil market has become too commercialised with a number of brands occupying shelf spaces in super bazars and retail malls. In an intensely competitive market occupied by national players, regional players and players in the unorganised market, a plethora of claims made by the manufacturers raises doubts about the veracity of such claims. Misinformation rules the roost and the FDA must step in to arrest such false propaganda. The problem is that in the maze of misinformation, truth often gets hidden. If Indians lose out on the beneficial effects of mustard oil due to ignorance or propaganda, then this will be a terrible loss. It is high time research efforts bring out the truth about mustard oil.

(Venkatesh Ganapathy completed his B Tech (oil technology) from UDCT, Mumbai, and MBA from Southern New Hampshire University. He currently works as associate professor (marketing & operations) in Presidency School of Business, Bangalore. He can be reached at
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