The Mustard Oil Controversy: An Oil for Cooking or for Massage Only?

The controversial mustard oil

In a previous post, we looked at the different kinds of mustard seeds and how they are used in Indian cooking. In writing that post, I realized there was a ban on mustard oil in the US, something I didn’t realize before. I had a bottle of mustard oil in my kitchen that I occasionally used for cooking. A friend noticed the label on the bottle that said “not for human consumption” and wondered aloud if I should be using it. As an Indian, there was no question for me that mustard oil could be used for cooking but realized that not everyone may agree.

Citing toxicity of erucic acid that is found in mustard oil, the US, Canada and the EU have banned its sale for consumption. Many stores get around this by selling mustard oil that is labeled for use as massage oil. So is mustard oil safe to cook with? This question has been asked multiple times on the popular foodie forum Chowhound.

For me, it is enough to know that mustard oil has been used in Indian cooking for centuries.  Though erucic acid was shown to be toxic in rats, it was subsequently shown that rats were also susceptible to other oils whether or not they contained erucic acid. Canola oil derived from rapeseed which is another member of the Brassica family, also contains erucic acid although in smaller quantities and no one has banned this oil. Perhaps the Canola oil manufacturers saw a chance to sell more of their oil in India, a country with a huge market for cooking oil? Do I smell a rat?

While I cannot conclusively tell you that it is OK to use mustard oil, I would advise the following if you do decide to use it in cooking:

  1. Buy good quality mustard oil that has been produced by cold-pressing. Certain mustard oils coming from New Zealand and Australia are said to be of high quality and don’t have the ‘not for consumption’ label on them. Now that my mustard oil has run out, I’ve been on the lookout for cold-pressed mustard oil in the Seattle area and will update this blog once I find a  source.
  2. Avoid using mustard essential oil that is produced through a process of distillation. This oil contains 92% or more allyl isothiocyanate which can irritate the skin and other membranes.
  3. Use it in small quantities or mix it with other oils. I’ll often combine 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil with one tablespoon of mustard oil if a recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of oil.

Mustard oil does have a pronounced taste. I find that for me, this is a reason to moderate its usage. Many recipes from Bengal, a state in eastern India where mustard oil is used extensively, say to heat the oil till it just starts burning. This helps remove the most pungent elements from the oil resulting in a smoother taste.

Do you use mustard oil? How do you use it? What are your thoughts on the mustard oil controversy?

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Here are some links to more discussion and information on mustard oil

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27 Comments

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27 responses to “The Mustard Oil Controversy: An Oil for Cooking or for Massage Only?

  1. Andrew

    Wow! I had no idea. I’ll have to take a look at my mustard oil when I get home and see if it’s labeled as massage oil. All the recipes I’ve seen using mustard oil have the advice about heating the oil until it smokes and then cooling it off a little, as you mentioned.

    • Poonam

      right. I grew up eating food cooked in Ghee (made from butter) & mustard oil, & we got the mustard oil from the neighborhood oil crusher, sort of like a giant ortar & pestle operated by bullocks, the can was filled from the pa placed right at the oil outlet spout in the crusher…& so it was always “cold pressed extra virgin” I have used Tez brad in the US for years w, & have had no problems. True, some of the brands have preservatives & additives. So do most of the oils available here, including the “EVOO” There have been a lot of complaints of EVOO being adultrated in the USA, but it is never laballed “for external use only” The additives & preservatives are things we avoid any way. y mom used to get a 16 kg can filled each time she ran out. She would heat 4 kg of the oil at a time with a fist full of regular salt (not iodized). The oil was heated til smoking & then allowed to cool completely. That was stored in a smaller container for daily use. This allowed us to used to skip the heating step. & we used it just the way we used any other oil.

  2. What do you cook with mustard oil Andrew?

  3. I was intrigued initially when I learnt about ban on mustard oil in US. But in indian stores close to my home, I get brands like Dabur & Tez which are used back in India for cooking & are safe to use.
    I use mustard oil for almost every dish in kitchen- even for frying sometimes..can say that cant live without it! 🙂

    • Tanvi – do the Dabur and Tez mustard oils have anything on the labels that say they are for external consumption only? I haven’t tried mustard oil for frying but that’s a fun idea!

      • No but the store owners say that the brands that they get from Europe or UK say so. Try frying besan based pakora batter in mustard oil – its yum!

  4. hello Veena, This is a real eye opening post. I never realized that its not suitable for eating at all. Earlier we used to make pickles and karelas in mustard oil but offlate i have been using olive oil and veg oil (canola) for making the same coz i dont like its pungent smell but yes a hot mustard oil massage is still very therapeutic for me….thanks !

  5. Hey veena! I must say you are an amazing cook and as well can articulate your ideas extra-ordinarily well! I have an offer for you! Mail me on editors.iunl@gmail.com jf interested! I shall revert back with details once I receive a mail from you!:)

    Regards,
    Preethi Kashyap
    Editor-in-chief
    IU Online Newsletter(www.iuindia.com)

  6. Dev R

    Another important consideration is the addition of TBHQ as a preservative. If the eurecic acid doesn’t harm you, the TBHQ certainly will. I only now noticed it in Deep brand oil but haven’t checked out Dabur and Tez. Will other people check their labels and let us know?

  7. Wow, I had NO idea it was banned because I buy it at the Indian store frequently. My husband is from West Bengal, and I use it to cook some Bengali dishes and also Kashmiri dishes. It’s not possible it is harmful; Bengalis eat it EVERY day, and many live till an old age with no problems. Like you said, they’ve been doing this for centuries. I have to look at my oil to see how high quality it is…thanks for the heads up on this. I have a blog also where I post Indian recipes, and I would have listed mustard oil in a recipe not knowing it was banned. I still will list it, but will have to put a note about it.

  8. Thanks for the comments everyone. I was just as surprised to learn that the FDA considers mustard oil as harmful while allowing canola oil processed with hexane for cooking purposes. I hope I haven’t alarmed anyone. I simply wanted to point out a potential consideration, the importance of buying high quality ingredients and making informed choices. I continue to use mustard oil and am on the lookout for Dabur or Tez brands.

  9. @richvegetarian (http://therichvegetarian.com/) pointed me to an article on mustard oil published in the NY Times on 11/2. And no I didn’t copy (had the post written a week before I published)! Great to have some validation on my post :-). The NYT article adds good perspective on scientific thinking of whether mustard oil is OK or not. Also that American chefs are discovering this unique oil and figuring out ways to use it.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/02/dining/american-chefs-discover-mustard-oil.html?_r=1

  10. I haven’t tried Mustard oil. Usually I prefer coconut oil which the best oil what I think. Let’s see the Mustard Oil.

  11. Lezlie

    I just purchased some Dabur mustard oil at my local Indian grocery since the Indian cookbook I use calls for it often in recipes. Moments ago, I read the back of the bottle and read its label that warned it was for massage only. I was alarmed and found your site. It all makes sense now and I’m going to continue to use it in moderation. I enjoyed the pungent flavor it imparted into the tikka I made yesterday…I’m going to give it a try on my hair while I’m at it! I certainly trust the properties of the mustard seed. Mustard oil has been used a lot longer than canola. I believe in the ancient beauty and health secrets of the east. Dabur does say on the label that it has no artificial color, and that it is pure mustard oil.Thank you for writing this post!

  12. Thanks for your comment Lezlie and I’m glad to have been of help. I’d love to hear what it does for your hair!

  13. susan g

    Canola oil was naturally bred in Canada to reduce the erucic acid in rapeseed. The name means Canadian oil, low acid. That means it passes the food standards. Presently, much of the canola is genetically modified (GMO), so if you want to use it, buy organically grown, which is non-GMO. It’s a very neutral tasting oil, so I doubt that people who use mustard oil (which I intend to buy next time I can get to an Indian market) will want to substitute it.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canola

  14. SiggyBoo

    never use mustard oil stored in plastic bottles. make sure its in glass container.. Use sparingly – not daily – till the jury is out . There is no conspiracy – except the one in india where adulterated mustard oil was used as a pretext to ban unregistered cottage industries producing it ( Rajasthan) . Erucic acid is not probably healthy – but will not do any harm if used sparingly – and not on daily basis. Canola Oil is 4 % erucic acid and widely used . Also lots of people gulp down yellow mustard sauce daily – containing substantial amount of erucic acid . So if someone has 30 ML of canola oil in daily consumption – its roughtly equivalent on 3 to 12 ML of mustard oil. Rat models are useful but incomplete when applying studies on humans, So use mustard oil only for special days and special dishes , and in small amounts . stay safe .

  15. It was good enough for me to eat food made by the Nepalese Ghurkas that worked security on our ship (West Africa area) and a treat as I was chef on board and I loved (and was honored) being invited by different individuals from different cultures to the crew kitchen for various mufti-cultural meals…they loved cooking their favorite ‘my country-at home specialties’ for me, I loved eating them! — I was going to blog (tomorrow) an old post I found in the ‘lost years’ where I lost a lot of content from my website (while transferring) so I was running through some searches of mustard oil and your link was close to the top. Great post. I will link to it.

    • That sounds like such a fun experience! Food has this amazing way of bridging cultural gaps and creating lovely memories, doesn’t it? Thanks for reading my post.

  16. charlotte palmer

    Wow- I am really confused! I am right in the middle of making hot lime pickle which is from an indian cookbook I bought here in the uk. The recipe calls for 600ml of mustard oil, and as I’m making twice the quantity, I have bought two 500ml of KTC 100% mustard oil which intend to use in the next few days, as stated by the recipe. The bottles do indeed say ‘for external use only’. Should I use it? I note that you state to use it in small quantities, I was going to use 1000ml. What should I do? If it is not safe, is there another oil that I could use instead? Please help!

  17. Poulami Saha Mondal

    Mostly in bengali kitchens you will find usage of mustard oil….starting from simple frying to delicious chicken or mutton or fish curry and even trying for a new dish I have been using mustard oil mainly… My ma n even my grandma cannot even think of using any other oil apart from mustard oil !! and still they are using in India. I have never doubted about the usage of this particular oil in cooking.After coming to Toronto, first thing I did was to find an Indian store where I can get mustard oil. I have been using mustard oil for the past two years in Canada along with Canola oil but today it is for the first time I had to search the website to know the meaning of TBQH…..and found this blog. I am really confused now whether to continue using the oil or not. I have previously bought Lata mustard oil (there it was written “for external use only” but I kept on using and found no problem ) and now using Dabur mustard oil with the same caption “for external use only”. The problem is with TBQH part. Has anyone used Dabur mustard oil? is it safe to use it in cooking? Oh! my Mustard Oil, I never thought that I will have a doubt about you!!!!

  18. Sherryl

    I lived for 2 years in Orissa (back in 1970s) and everyone used mustard oil. The one thing I learned was not to use it to make a cake! (Unbelievably, the guys ate it anyway). But we used it for everything else. Now I know why it is hard to find mango pickle made with mustard oil.Our local Indian market doesn’t have any. I’ve been looking online for some because it just doesn’t taste as good without mustard oil.

  19. G Subhash

    Health studies and recommendations in the West cannot escape Western prejudice. Thus, mustard oil was easy to label toxic and harmful to skin because it was used in India, not in Western culture. However, rats who suffered damage due to Erucic acid in mustard oil also suffered under many other oils, and studies performed in India showed no ill effects of mustard oil massage. Therefore, scientific evidence is suspect at best. On the other hand, mustard oil has been used for centuries in India without any ill effects being detected. That’s good enough for me to ignore the warning labels based on hasty research by biased Westerners. I enjoy a number of Indian dishes made in mustard oil.

    • Poonam

      Thank you G. Subhash for posting this. 90% of the world’s population, even the very educated & the literate them just don’t know about the politics & economivs of it…& why are the 10% who know about it not talking? for they are the ones behind all the politics…they & their insatiable greed for power…I use Tez brand, that is clearly labelled, 100% kachchi ghani (which means it is cold pressed at low speed using stone crushers, probably turned by the bullocks…that’s how it was when I was there…they had converted to electric crushers). Italso says that it is Argemone oil free. But still is labeiied, product of India, for external use oly. The US govt wo’t allow this to be imported from India unless it is labelled like that. The americans really have more than the proverbial chip on their shoulder…actually, they don’t have any chi to brag about, so they have put a whole plymouth rock on their shoulder…I use this oil & get the most amazing results. Those who eat in my house rarely notice the difference in taste…reason? I never cook when they are present….they otice it only if they see me do it…they are totally not aware of the difference in the cooked food.

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