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!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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