The mustard seed has a long history and religious importance in Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. The tiny size, 3 mm in diameter, has been significant and referenced in the texts of these major religions. Today, mustard seed is popular due to its distinct flavors and added health benefits.
Historically, mustard seeds are mentioned in ancient Sanskrit writings dating back five thousand years. Evidence shows it has grown in Europe, Asia, the Mediterranean and the Himalayas. The ancient Greeks used the seeds, but the Romans were the first to grind them into a paste which resembled the mustard condiment available today. Physicians in both civilizations also used the seeds for medicinal purposes.
The mustard seeds are the tiniest part of three different mustard plants and vary in color from yellow-white to black to brown. The three mustard plants are Brassica hirta (white), Brassica nigra (black) and Brassica juncea (brown). They are available as whole seeds, ground powder or extracted oil.
Mustard seeds flourish in cold weather, moist soils and generally under temperate conditions. The mustard plant grows as a shrub, and the seeds take 3 to 10 days to germinate. Brown and black seeds can grow far more easily than yellow seeds. Canada is the largest producer of mustard seeds today, but seeds can also come from other countries, including the United States, Hungary, Great Britain and India.
Two research studies, in 2003 and 2006, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, both state the major benefit of mustard seeds in relation to reducing all cardiac events such as heart attacks and strokes. An article in the American Diabetes Association published in 2003 describes a study in which mustard seeds reduced LDL and triglycerides and increased HDL in rats. Additionally, mustard seeds contain a powerful anticancer agent, isothiocyanate, which protects cells and reduces the growth of existing cancer cells. They are also full of vitamins and minerals, including iron, magnesium, manganese, niacin, fiber, calcium, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and zinc.
Mustard seeds can be found in the spice section in grocery stores. They should be kept in an airtight container and in a cool, dry place. Mustard seed oils must be refrigerated. Mustard seeds are used as a spice condiment for fish, beef or soups. They can be used as an ingredient in pickling vegetables like cabbages or fruits like mangoes. However, they are most commonly used in Indian cuisine. The seeds also can be grounded into a powder which does not have any aroma but when mixed with water can be quite a pungent condiment.