Health Benefits Of Nutmeg (And A Dark Side)

It's the beginning of autumn in many parts of the world which means all sorts of holiday treats are on the horizon. If you love the smell of holiday cookies, eggnog and pumpkin pie, you have most likely been seduced by the heady aroma of the spice nutmeg. And I don't blame you! Warm, sweet and aromatic, nutmeg is the quintessential winter spice and no holiday dessert feels complete without its exotic notes. 

But nutmeg has a fascinating, if at times twisted history, beyond its innocuous addition to culinary delicacies.

Nutmeg originated from the Spice Islands in eastern Indonesia where it is derived from the Myristica fragrans tree. The brownish, veined nutmeg seed has a lacy, red veil that is processed into mace, a spice with a milder, gentler aroma and saffron-like colour. The remaining dried seed is ground into the spice we know as nutmeg (and like most spices, is best enjoyed freshly ground, easily accomplished with a microplane).

For centuries, nutmeg was considered so valuable that wars were waged for a monopoly on it's trade. In fact, the British empire won New York City (then called New Amsterdam) from the Dutch in exchange for an Indonesian island strategic to the control of nutmeg! Nutmeg is now produced more widely in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Caribbean and Kerala, India. 

Nutmeg is used world over in sweet and savoury dishes. In the East, it complements meats in soups and stews and in the West, desserts like rice pudding and pies. It is also used to augment the flavour of potatoes and vegetables like broccoli and Brussel sprouts. It gives creamy bechamel sauce that extra oomph and adds depth to fall classics like butternut squash bisque and cauliflower gratin. 

Medicinally, nutmeg was considered so potent, it was thought to ward off the plague. Prized for its antibacterial, digestion boosting and nervous system calming properties, our ancestors used the spice routinely. Unfortunately, this led them to discover nutmeg's 'dark side' - it's ability to cause a drug-like haze and even hallucinations when consumed in very large amounts. In this regard, the spice has seen some abuse leading to a few cases of nutmeg poisoning, rarely fatal but definitely unpleasant (1). Large quantities (2 or more tablespoons) of nutmeg can also cause nausea, dizziness and heart palpitations. These less desirable effects are linked to the compound myristicin, which also confers nutmeg with beneficial properties. Like they say, the dose makes the poison.

Nutmeg in large amounts was used to end unwanted pregnancies, therefore it is advised that pregnant women should go easy on nutmeg. Importantly, infants should not be offered nutmeg teas, an ancient remedy for digestive discomfort. This gorgeous spice is best enjoyed by everyone, young and old alike, in small, culinary amounts. Importantly, dogs and cats are extremely sensitive to nutmeg - hence the common instruction to keep eggnog away from dogs! 

Despite its shadow elements, nutmeg does have health benefits. 

1) Nutmeg can kill harmful bacteria
Nutmeg has compounds with antibacterial activity against a broad range of pathogenic bacteria (2, 3, 4). This likely explains the spice's use in meat preparations, which were prone to food spoilage in the olden days.

2) Nutmeg has anti-cancer activity
Nutmeg's compounds inhibit aspects of a cancer cell's metabolism thereby killing malignant cells while sparing normal, healthy cells (5). 

3) Nutmeg fights inflammation
Active compounds found in nutmeg inhibit inflammation by blocking molecular processes such as nitric oxide synthesis (6). Unwanted chronic inflammation is at the root of several modern diseases, making anti-inflammatory foods an area of high interest. 

4) Nutmeg is an anti-oxidant
In the course of normal metabolism, our cells produce free radicals, which can cause DNA damage, mutations and diseases like cancer. Nutmeg has several active compounds that mop up these free radicals i.e. act as anti-oxidants to relieve cellular stress (7). 

5) Nutmeg alleviates pain
Nutmeg oil can alleviate symptoms of inflammation and pain in animal models by blocking the production of inflammatory proteins like COX-2, also the target of the all too familiar drug ibuprofen (8). A small human trial did not reproduce this effect (9). Larger, controlled trials are necessary. 

Importantly, unlike spices such as turmeric and Ceylon (not Cassia) cinnamon which can be freely consumed in large quantities to obtain beneficial health effects, nutmeg should be enjoyed in small quantities, more for its flavour and aroma. Quantities of nutmeg that would provide the above stated health benefits are likely to also cause adverse side effects, discussed previously. 

Health benefits aside, the mesmerising flavour and aroma of this beautiful, ancient spice makes it a staple in my kitchen. For the same delicious reasons, I hope you will experiment with it in yours.