Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
4 Apr

Dear Mark: Carob, Psyllium, Chia Seeds, and Vanilla

I enjoyed answering your questions last week, so let’s do it again today. We’ve got another triad this time, including another question from Hilde. There’s going to be a lot of fiber talk, some fecal discussion, and even a few bits regarding multi-level marketing schemes. I’m also going to discuss the virulent menace that is the vanilla bean.

(Looking back at the title I just wrote, it sounds like the ingredients for a disgusting raw vegan dessert. Some lukewarm thing with the consistency of paste sloppily shoved into the shape of a brownie and sold for six bucks at the farmers’ market. Yum.)

Okay, on to the questions:

Would you consider carob to be a source of protein or classify it as an “Occasional Indulgence”?


Technically, carob is a source of protein. And by that, I mean it contains measurable amounts of protein. Is it a good source of protein? Is it a rich and reliable source of protein? Not really. A cup of carob powder contains just 4.76 grams of protein. The same amount of white potato contains around 2 grams of protein. So, it’s a better source than potatoes, but that’s not saying much.

Carob should be okay to eat. I wouldn’t even classify it as an Occasional Indulgence; it’s pretty inoffensive, if entirely unexciting. It is exceedingly high in fiber, though – in a cup of carob powder, 41 of the 91 carbohydrate grams come from insoluble fiber – so anyone with existing or suspected GI disorders like IBS might want to hold off on carob. Or not eat a cup of it at once.

Nutritionally, there’s just not a whole lot to carob. It has a bit of calcium and potassium, but you have to eat a lot to get appreciable amounts of either, and its main claim to fame is as a caffeine-free alternative to cacao that kinda tastes like chocolate. I suppose you could go for carob if you honestly prefer the flavor or can’t tolerate caffeine, but as a source of micronutrients (magnesium, copper, potassium especially) and polyphenols, cacao wins every time. If there’s a carob-flavored dessert you’ve been eyeing, go ahead and try it. The sugar it’s made with may be an issue, but the carob is not.

If you’re worried about carob being a legume or a seed full of antinutrients, don’t. While carob does come in pods filled with seeds which likely employ various self-defense mechanisms, the seeds aren’t what we eat (they do use them for animal feed, however). We eat the slightly sweet seedless pods themselves – dried and usually ground up into flour. Ironically, the germ of the carob seed is loaded with protein, and scientists are exploring the use of carob germ flour as an alternative protein source.

So, if you really want to bulk up (your protein intake, not your stool), I suppose you could wait for carob germ protein powder to hit the market.

Is it o.k. to take psyllium seed hulls and chia seed or does it irritate the intestinal system like grains?


I’d definitely avoid psyllium husks. They are the classic stool bulking agents – full of both flora-feeding soluble and colon-rending insoluble fiber. Now, fiber encountered in the wild is fine for healthy people with functioning guts. You eat some plants, maybe a few nuts or seeds, a starchy tuber? You’re gonna take in some fiber. It’s pretty unavoidable. But to go out and intentionally pad your poop stats (girth, viscosity, velocity) with seed husks (not even the seeds; just the dang hulls)? Not advised. Just eat some plant matter if it’s fiber you’re after.

Do you, by any chance, have a relative whose house has suddenly become inundated with cases of Mila Lifemax Miracle Seed?

While I’m generally suspicious of any food involved with multi-level marketing schemes (like all those ridiculous acai power berry juice scams), I’ve briefly written about chia (along with other edible seeds) before. It’s not magical or “lifemax enhancing,” but it is an edible seed with lots of omega-3, albeit substandard ALA. Do I eat them? No; I don’t see the need. Should you? It depends. A few pinches can add tasty crunch to salads or perhaps yogurt, but when you start getting into “three tablespoons” territory – adding it to shakes and taking fistfuls straight to the face, dry – you’re eating lots of oxidizable, vegetable omega-3.

But you were interested in intestinal irritation, right? Loren Cordain got into it with a chia seed hawker who got miffed after Cordain called his research into question. It seems that in one “supportive” study, some markers improved while interleukin-6 (IL-6) and other inflammatory cytokines went up in the chia group, which could indicate increased low-level inflammation normally associated with gut irritation. Furthermore, another study saw a few of its participants drop out of the chia eating group due to gastrointestinal distress. You can go ahead and read the back and forth between Cordain and the other guy yourself. I personally feel Dr. Cordain makes the better case, but you can certainly give chia a shot. I just wouldn’t make it a daily caloric staple – don’t eat meals based on chia seeds (if that’s even possible).

I was wondering if vanilla is healthy. Is it like cinnamon, a healthy addition to my smoothie, or is it more like honey, something I shouldn’t use everyday?


Vanilla is safe for daily use. Vanillin, the primary component of vanilla extract, has a ridiculously high LD50 (PDF). You could drink a couple bottles of extract and be totally fine. Don’t do that, because it’s disgusting, but know that you can.

There’s limited evidence of health benefits, mostly in cancer and cardiovascular disease. Pretreating rats with massive doses of vanillic acid (oxidized vanillin) offered protection when the same rats were induced to have myocardial infarctions. Size of infarcts were reduced in the vanillic acid-fed group. In an in vitro study, vanillin induced apoptosis and arrested the cell cycle of human colorectal cancer cells, and some researchers think vanillin could reduce the metastatic potential (ability to spread to other parts of the body) of human cancer cells in vivo, too. That’s a big “may,” though.

Those are studies either using big doses, rodents, or in vitro set-ups. I wouldn’t get caught up in the speculative health benefits, but I would use vanilla liberally if you enjoy the taste and aroma. I know I do. Go for it.

Thanks for the questions. If you’ve got more, send ’em my way!

Anyone get intestinal benefits from chia or psyllium? Anyone a rep for Mila? Did I miss something in my carob coverage? Let me know in the comment section!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Does anyone make carob candies with melted coconut oil, adding carob powder, mixing, and cooling in the freezer? Yummy.

    Abi wrote on March 16th, 2012
  2. What a relief to read all of these testimonials about fat after gallbladder removed.
    I started my primal journey April 16 and was really enjoying the results. I had what I thought were panic attacks for the last year and a half – they were weekly prior to primal and I only had 2 since makin the switch. But the one last week landed me in the ER and I wasnt given a choice- I was told my pancreas and gallbladder were both very infected and they had to remove the gallbladder once the pancreas wasn’t so inflamed.

    So now it’s 4 days post surgery and I have just started eating solids again. Naturally they told me low fat and bland foods,..I’m not sure what to eat or who to turn to. My surgeon scoffed at primal diet and returned to low fat recommendations. Regular message boards are filled with horror stories about never eating fat again…so happy to know that I can start easing myself back on plan and finally get my health back!!! Thank you

    Robyn wrote on May 29th, 2012
  3. Chia seeds are actually really tasty- not in the dry and boring form but 2/3 of a cup of coconut milk mixed with 3 TBS of chia (yeh you nailed me on the amount but this isn’t a daily affair) and heaps of vanilla turns into like a tiny sago pudding if you leave it out, mixing every so often for an hour… Or only like 15 minutes if you heat the coconut milk first.

    So yes, it is entirely possible to have a meal based on chia seeds… In my weaker moments I have done this.

    SophieE wrote on August 15th, 2012
  4. I sense a bit of bite in your article today mark! Great read, I’m glad vanilla is safe because I love it. Normally using vanilla bean powder tho, not the extract.

    Jon wrote on October 9th, 2012
  5. I was looking for a natural vanilla extract or vanilla a few years ago and I found something titled “Vanilla” in another language with a very low price and since I wasn’t aware that the price would be ridiculously low for what I was looking for, I bought that. And guess what I discovered it was, it was “Eternal Pearl” brand vanillin and it tasted awful. But since I learnt that vanillin was an antioxidant and my mother strongly opposed sending it back, I decided to use it in very small amounts, about 3 milimetres with the back of a teaspoon for something with sweet fruits. Later my mother used it and regretted that she opposed me sending it back. Today I checked a while about if it could be more harmful than helpful, I found that it is a mutagen, reproductive effector, but listed with exactly what Mark shared about its toxicity, “Oral rat LD50: 1580 mg/kg Investigated as a mutagen, reproductive effector.” You can check it in the link below:
    I wonder if it really could be more harmful than helpful as FarNorthGirl mentioned because it is most likely artificial vanilla as well probably made from guaiacol or from lignin, a constituent of wood, which is a byproduct of the pulp industry as wikipedia tells though it does not have any sort of sweetener in it. Or maybe it is good in such amounts but I don’t know… Any input is welcome.

    HealthCrack wrote on October 22nd, 2013
    • Sorry, I’ve forgotten to choose to get notifications of replies. Keep up the good work Mark !

      HealthCrack wrote on October 22nd, 2013
  6. No one has mentioned that Chia seeds make fantastic microgreens for salads. I grow baby greens and sprouts during the miserable winters where I live; saves on what I have to purchase, and has plenty of nutrients.

    Leasa wrote on March 26th, 2014
    • Please give specifics on growing the micro greens. Thanks.

      Judy wrote on April 30th, 2014
  7. Psyllium saved me, I woundn’t avoid it just because it’s not primal.

    My bowel problems which I believe started due to drug and alcohol abuse can cause me major colon problems. My bowels continued to leak well after I went to the toilet. Psyllium husk is the only cure I have found through years of suffering (and yes I tried primal diet before psyllium)

    As far as taking it when you aren’t experiencing issues, I really don’t see the point.

    Hayden wrote on December 23rd, 2014
  8. Chia amuses me. It’s Mexican sage. That’s it. Nothing exotic, just another version of the sage you have in your spice cabinet. I had some old packets of garden sage and was presoaking them to see if they were still viable for the garden this year, and was amused to discover they do the same thing chia does, which is form a gel around themselves when they’re wet. It was like handling booger seeds.

    I suppose chia might form more of the gel than maybe Salvia officinalis does, but I don’t know for sure. Might try to see if I can obtain a small amount to check.

    Dana wrote on May 18th, 2015
  9. I just found what appears to be rodent parts in my organic psyllium. I feel sick to my stomach as I have used up 1/3 of the package. I don’t know what to do. Can somebody make suggestions?

    Toster wrote on July 28th, 2016

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