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Heart lesions and mustard
Is there a huge health benefit to mustard?
Mustard is probably the simplest condiment in the fridge…
It usually contains just ground mustard seeds, vinegar, and a little turmeric for color.
This condiment certainly seems okay at first glance: The mustard seed contains only about 10% linoleic acid (omega-6).
But linoleic acid is the worst fatty acid (between 2 and 18 carbons long).
In fact, the only fatty acids worse are the longer ones derived from linoleic acid.
The mustard seed also contains gamma-tocopherol.
That is the vitamin E subtype most known for trapping reactive nitrogen species such as nitrogen dioxide and peroxynitrite.
It also contains about 8% alpha-linolenic acid.
This fatty acid is the only precursor for DHA, an essential membrane lipid.
For those who do not eat pre-made DHA directly, this is a necessary nutrient.
And mustard also contains turmeric, the prototypical curcumin-containing spice.
This means mustard contains cyclooxygenase inhibitors, and those reduce colon cancer risk.
And the two fatty acids that constitute the rest of mustard – oleic acid (26%) and erucic acid (39%) – belong to the omega-9 class.
Omega-9 fatty acids are generally considered acceptable.
Although omega-9 oleic acid is more or less safe – and hard to avoid – erucic acid is notoriously toxic.
The characteristic toxicity of erucic acid is certainly not new information.
Interestingly, it led to the development of canola oil.
Canola oil was created with the intent of reducing the erucic acid concentration of Brassica oilseed.
The word “canola” itself is actually an acronym for Canadian oil low acid (meaning low erucic acid).
But in the process of trying to make a safer oil, the plant breeders ironically made a worse one – with double the linoleic acid.
Canola oil is no safer, and actually worse in many respects.
Although erucic acid is toxic in certain situations, it’s actually not all that bad…
When you read on you will soon know why.
Both classic and modern studies demonstrate how erucic acid is toxic, why it is toxic…
And they prove that it’s actually quite safe in most circumstances:
Older studies before this demonstrated the unique heart-specific toxicity of erucic acid.
But this study was conducted to elucidate some of the finer details.
The researchers used four groups of rats and fed them four different diets…
Three of the diets contained near-identical erucic acid levels.
The first group of rats – the control group – ate only lard.
The second group of rats ate lard with 5.4% free erucic acid added.
(This is the only group that had erucic acid not in the form of triglycerides.)
The third group ate fat extracted from pigs that had previously been fed a diet containing 20% erucic acid…something like a customized lard, if you will.
This diet also contained 5.6% erucic acid, but in the form of triglycerides.
They fed the fourth group an oil from Brassica campestris, which naturally contains 4.8% erucic acid.
The study authors refer to this as “Spanish rapeseed oil” (Span RSO).
I know rapeseed oil sounds like something you’d find in Kobe Bryant’s trunk, but it’s not.
The name derives from the Latin word for turnip (rapum)… Rapeseed oil is actually the official name for the oil pressed from Brassica campestris seeds.
Mustard and canola oil also belong to the Brassica plant genus.
The results were surprising.
It seems that the exact form of erucic acid made a big difference:
This was highly-refined seed oil containing practically nothing but fatty acids.
The idea of some other unidentified toxin hiding within this Brassica seed oil is out of the question.
For some reason, seven out of the forty-five rats fed the lard without erucic acid added had those unique heart issues in the table above…
“Since both RPF and Span RSO contained the same level of esterified erucic acid, the results of Experiment I suggest that erucic acid per se is not responsible for the production of the myocardial necrosis…”
The researchers concluded that erucic acid itself wasn’t really a “toxin” in the usual sense of the word…
…but rather that other fatty acids must play a significant role in the toxic effect.
So what is actually going on?
Well, let’s have a look at what happens to the heart’s fatty acid composition after consuming certain oils, including those containing erucic acid:
The title speaks for itself.
This is essentially a study measuring membrane changes in the heart and liver as a function of a few different diets.
But this study is particularly good because most studies don’t make the extra effort of measuring fatty acids that are over 22 carbons long – such as erucic and behenic acids.
The level of DHA content in the heart is normally around 15%.
But this obviously changes when animals are fed different diets.
The only group of rats that had an increase in DHA were the ones fed cod liver oil.
This is no real surprise as fish oil was the only oil used that contains significant amounts of pre-made DHA.
But lard, since it comes from pigs, actually does contain a small amount of DHA.
(Though it isn’t really a good source, since pigs are often fed the cheaper omega-6 fatty acids which displace DHA).
But have a look at what happened on the three other diets:
As in the first study we discussed, the researchers only insignificant amounts of erucic acid in the heart membranes.
This very fact makes its somewhat heart-specific toxicity difficult to explain.
But this obviously has something to do with DHA…
The low DHA found in the “vegetable oil” group can be easily explained by noting that the oil fed had no DHA to speak of and only .5% of its precursor.
The lowered DHA in the “hydrogenated soybean oil” group is even easier to explain…
It’s because hydrogenation converted alpha-linolenic acid into oleic, linoleic, and stearic acids.
In their analysis, the researchers noted that the hydrogenated soybean oil used contained merely a trace – going from 6.2% down to nothing after the hydrogenation process.
However, you cannot easily explain the effect in the “rapeseed oil group.”
This oil naturally contains considerably high amounts of alpha-linolenic acid.
The particular batch used in this study contained 8.2%.
But, because the rapeseed oil they used contained the highest amount of alpha-linolenic acid among all diets fed, it should have led to the highest DHA membrane levels…
Well, maybe except for the “cod liver oil” group.
But it didn’t!
So how can we explain the lowered DHA levels found in the presence of good amounts of its precursor?
Well… I think the obvious conclusion is that erucic acid is an inhibitor of DHA synthesis.
Specifically, it must inhibit the step of going from DPA to DHA.
And that’s because the DPA concentration, its direct precursor, was normal.
This would explain why the author of the first study (above) also noted a lowered DHA content.
So that’s probably why the rat groups given erucic acid with lard or in the form of pig fat were partially protected – because of the DHA content of the diets.
“Furthermore, the relative concentration of 22:5ω3 was not affected by diet, whereas, in general, the abundance of 22:6ω3 in the cardiac lipids decreased with the duration of feeding.”
(22:5ω3 and 22:6ω3 are two different omega-3 fatty acids)
Why is this relationship important?
A deficiency in DHA is actually known to cause the very same cardiac problems blamed on erucic acid:
Some people have a deficiency in the enzyme long-chain 3-hydroxyacyl–CoA dehydrogenase…
And this results in a significant reduction of circulating DHA.
These people also commonly have cardiomyopathy.
This enzyme deficiency leads to low DHA values throughout the body, not just in the bloodstream as happens during erucic acid feeding.
So, besides the DHA-deficiency heart problems, these people also suffer from DHA-deficiency seizures when brain levels of DHA fall:
And there are even more conditions characteristic of both low DHA and heart problems.
So this is more than simply a trend.
And it seems there are no exceptions to this rule.
Barth syndrome is one such deficiency disease.
Just as with the enzyme deficiency discussed above and in the erucic acid trials, lowered DHA levels observed in this condition commonly lead to cardiac arrest.
And it has even been shown that DHA supplementation will prolong the survival of rats with a genetic carnitine deficiency.
That’s another thing that leads to low DHA levels – and, of course, these rats die of cardiomyopathy.
So why how does all this happen.
Why is DHA, above all, so necessary for the heart?
The answer is quite straightforward really:
Like in free radical science, research into what underlies the unique properties of DHA is dominated by hard-headed physical chemists.
After creating membranes containing different fatty acids, they always find that cholesterol is excluded as a function of the number of double bonds the lipid has.
The more double bonds the membrane contains, the less cholesterol tends to be associated with it.
But this function is not linear…
There is a jump when going from DPA with five double bonds to DHA, which has six of them.
Both DPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids, so they are safe hormonally.
These fatty acids won’t cause cancer like omega-6 fatty acids do.
This unique cholesterol exclusion of DHA occurs because the molecule has six double bonds.
As the fatty acid having the most of these, it occupies the least amount of space for its size.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) has the lowest density of all membrane lipids.
This property can also be explained by solubility: DHA is the most water-soluble fatty acid…
That also means it is the least oil-soluble….
And cholesterol dissolves best in oil, not water.
This fatty acid also has the highest kinetic energy, leading to cholesterol being forced out through rapid molecular motions.
(Although normally drawn as static, fatty acids are constantly “wiggling” to varying degrees.)
“The presence of solid cholesterol excluded from within the membrane is revealed by observation of a broad spectral component…”
But the problem isn’t cholesterol, really, and it never has been.
The problem is just cholesterol hanging out in the wrong places.
Ironically, lowering cholesterol with statins also leads to heart failure – but of a different type.
The enzyme inhibited by statins makes isoprene units, which then make cholesterol.
But since coenzyme Q is also made of isoprene units, statins lower that as predictably as they lower cholesterol.
So statins can cause a cardiac failure of a more mitochondrial type.
We could sort of think of it as death via electron deficiency.
And we do see proof of this in older studies, as seen here:
These researchers, apparently in a hurry, fed their rats an oil containing a very high concentration of erucic acid (50%).
And the autopsies were dominated by cholesterol infiltration…
While the article’s text was dominated by the term “fatty infiltration.”
“Microscopically, all rats given rapeseed oil showed fatty infiltration in the heart, adrenals, and skeletal muscles.”
Sure, this is a relatively obscure article showing an effect not much known or even hinted at.
But the erucic acid cholesterol infiltration was not an entirely new observation.
In fact, this was noted earlier by a very famous lipid researcher (Carroll, 1951).
And it was the heart, among all things, that showed the most striking change.
This is seriously creepy…
The heart was made ostentatiously pale by the ingestion of erucic acid:
They didn’t note the DHA levels in this study, but I think we can be certain that it decreased.
“Microscopically, the paleness of the heart represented the most striking change observed during autopsy in rapeseed oil fed rats. The heart was pale after only one day, and increased in paleness after 3 to 6 days.”
Since erucic acid is toxic only to the extent that it inhibits DHA, results such as these are no longer confusing:
That’s because omega-6 fatty acids can tend towards the very same outcome by displacing DHA.
So if you eat fish every day, you are essentially immune to the effects of erucic acid – and can safely eat mustard by the jarful.
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- Hulan, H. "Relationship between erucic acid and myocardial changes in male rats." Lipids (1976) http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02532578
- Tahin, Q. "The fatty acid composition of subcellular membranes of rat liver, heart, and brain: diet‐induced modifications." The FEBS Journal (1981) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1432-1033.1981.tb06421.x
- den Boer, M. "Long-chain 3-hydroxyacyl-CoA dehydrogenase deficiency: clinical presentation and follow-up of 50 patients." Pediatrics (2002) http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/109/1/99.short
- Stillwell, W. "Docosahexaenoic acid: membrane properties of a unique fatty acid." Chemistry and physics of lipids (2003) http://sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0009308403001014
- Abdellatif, A. "Pathological effects of dietary rapeseed oil in rats." Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism (1970) https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/175302
- Friend, D. "Growth and cardiopathology in boars fed rapeseed oil." Canadian Journal of Animal Science (1976) http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/pdf/10.4141/cjas76-044
- Erucic acid | C22H42O2 - PubChem https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Erucic-acid
- ENZYMATIC ISOLATION AND ENRICHMENT OF ERUCIC ACID FROM HEA SEED OILS: CURRENT STATUS https://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/~bhe/pdfs/EA_1.pdf