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Nutmeg seeds showing "veins"
Mace (red) within nutmeg fruit
Nutmeg fruit

Nutmeg is a spice, the seed from several species of tree in the genus Myristica.[1] Mace is a similar-tasting spice made from the dried lacy reddish covering or aril of that seed.

The most important commercial species is Myristica fragrans, an evergreen tree indigenous to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas (or Spice Islands) of Indonesia. The seed of the tree is roughly egg-shaped and about 20 to 30 mm (0.8 to 1.2 in) long and 15 to 18 mm (0.6 to 0.7 in) wide, and weighing between 5 and 10 g (0.2 and 0.4 oz) dried. The first harvest of nutmeg trees takes place 7–9 years after planting, and the trees reach full production after twenty years. Nutmeg is usually used in powdered form.

This is the only tropical fruit that is the source of two different spices, obtained from different parts of the plant. Several other commercial products are also produced from the trees, including essential oils, extracted oleoresins, and nutmeg butter.

Botany and cultivation[edit]

The common or fragrant nutmeg, Myristica fragrans, is native to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas.[2][3] It is also cultivated on Penang Island in Malaysia, in the Caribbean, especially in Grenada, and in Kerala, a state formerly known as Malabar in ancient writings as the hub of spice trading, in southern India. Other species used to adulterate the spice include Papuan nutmeg M. argentea from New Guinea, and M. malabarica from India. In the 17th-century work Hortus Botanicus Malabaricus, Hendrik van Rheede records that Indians learned the usage of nutmeg from the Indonesians through ancient trade routes.

Nutmeg trees are dioecious plants which are propagated sexually and asexually, the latter being the standard. Sexual propagation by seedling yields 50% male seedlings, which are unproductive. As there is no reliable method of determining plant sex before flowering in the sixth to eighth year, and sexual propagation bears inconsistent yields, grafting is the preferred method of propagation. Epicotyl grafting, approach grafting, and patch budding have proved successful, with epicotyl grafting being the most widely adopted standard. Air-layering, or marcotting, is an alternative though not preferred method because of its low (35-40%) success rate.

Culinary uses[edit]

Nutmeg and mace have similar sensory qualities, with nutmeg having a slightly sweeter and mace a more delicate flavour. Mace is often preferred in light dishes for the bright orange, saffron-like hue it imparts. Nutmeg is used for flavouring many dishes, usually in ground or grated form, and is best grated fresh in a nutmeg grater.

Indonesian manisan pala (nutmeg sweets)

In Indonesian cuisine, nutmeg is used in various dishes,[4] mainly in many spicy soups, such as some variant of soto, konro,[5] oxtail soup, sup iga (ribs soup), bakso and sup kambing. It is also used in gravy for meat dishes, such as semur beef stew, ribs with tomato, to European derived dishes such as bistik (beef steak), rolade (minced meat roll) and bistik lidah (beef tongue steak).[6] Sliced nutmeg fruit flesh could be made as manisan (sweets), either wet, which is seasoned in sugary syrup liquid, or dry coated with sugar.

In Penang cuisine, dried, shredded nutmeg rind with sugar coating is used as toppings on the uniquely Penang ais kacang. Nutmeg rind is also blended (creating a fresh, green, tangy taste and white colour juice) or boiled (resulting in a much sweeter and brown juice) to make iced nutmeg juice.

In Indian cuisine, nutmeg is used in many sweet, as well as savoury, dishes (predominantly in Mughlai cuisine). In Kerala Malabar region, it is considered medicinal and the flesh made into juice, pickles and chutney, while the grated nutmeg is used in meat preparations and also sparingly added to desserts for the flavour. It is also added in small quantities as a medicine for infants. It may also be used in small quantities in garam masala. Ground nutmeg is also smoked in India.[7]

In Middle Eastern cuisine, ground nutmeg is often used as a spice for savoury dishes.

Commercial jar of mace

In traditional European cuisine, nutmeg and mace are used especially in potato dishes and in processed meat products; they are also used in soups, sauces, and baked goods. It is also commonly used in rice pudding. In Dutch cuisine, nutmeg is added to vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and string beans. Nutmeg is a traditional ingredient in mulled cider, mulled wine, and eggnog. In Scotland, mace and nutmeg are usually both ingredients in haggis.

In Italian cuisine, nutmeg is used as part of the stuffing for many regional meat-filled dumplings like tortellini, as well as for the traditional meatloaf.

Japanese varieties of curry powder include nutmeg as an ingredient.

In the Caribbean, nutmeg is often used in drinks such as the Bushwacker, Painkiller, and Barbados rum punch. Typically, it is just a sprinkle on the top of the drink.

The pericarp (fruit/pod) is used in Grenada and also in Indonesia to make jam, or is finely sliced, cooked with sugar, and crystallised to make a fragrant candy.

In the US, nutmeg is known as the main pumpkin pie spice[8] and often shows up in simple recipes for other winter squashes such as baked acorn squash.

Essential oils[edit]

The essential oil obtained by steam distillation of ground nutmeg is used widely in the perfumery and pharmaceutical industries. This volatile fraction typically contains 60-80% d-camphene by weight, as well as quantities of d-pinene, limonene, d-borneol, l-terpineol, geraniol, safrol, and myristicin.[9] In its pure form, myristicin is a toxin, and consumption of excessive amounts of nutmeg can result in myristicin poisoning.[10] The oil is colourless or light yellow, and smells and tastes of nutmeg. It contains numerous components of interest to the oleochemical industry, and is used as a natural food flavouring in baked goods, syrups, beverages, and sweets. It is used to replace ground nutmeg, as it leaves no particles in the food. The essential oil is also used in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, for instance, in toothpaste, and as a major ingredient in some cough syrups. In traditional medicine, nutmeg and nutmeg oil were used for disorders related to the nervous and digestive systems.

After extraction of the essential oil, the remaining seed, containing much less flavour, is called "spent". Spent is often mixed in industrial mills with pure nutmeg to facilitate the milling process, as nutmeg is not easy to mill due to the high percentage of oil in the pure seed. Ground nutmeg with a variable percentage of spent (around 10% w/w) is also less likely to clot. To obtain a better running powder, a small percentage of rice flour also can be added.[citation needed]

Nutmeg butter[edit]

Mature mace of nutmeg, size about 38 mm (1.5 in)

Nutmeg butter is obtained from the nut by expression. It is semisolid, reddish-brown in colour, and tastes and smells of nutmeg.[11] About 75% (by weight) of nutmeg butter is trimyristin,[citation needed] which can be turned into myristic acid, a 14-carbon fatty acid, which can be used as a replacement for cocoa butter, can be mixed with other fats like cottonseed oil or palm oil, and has applications as an industrial lubricant.


Map of the Banda Islands

Until the mid-19th century, the small island group of the Banda Islands, which are also known under the name "Spice Islands," was the only location of the production of the spices nutmeg and mace in the world. The Banda Islands are situated in the eastern part of Indonesia, in the province of Maluku. They consist of eleven small volcanic islands, called Neira, Gunung Api, Banda Besar, Rhun, Ai, Hatta, Syahrir, Karaka, Manukan, Nailaka and Batu Kapal, with an total approximate land area of 8,150 hectares.[12]

Nutmeg is known to have been a prized and costly spice in European medieval cuisine as a flavouring, medicinal, and preservative agent. Saint Theodore the Studite (c. 758 – 826) allowed his monks to sprinkle nutmeg on their pease pudding when required to eat it. In Elizabethan times, because nutmeg was believed to ward off the plague, demand increased and its price skyrocketed.[8]

Nutmeg was known as a valuable commodity by Muslim sailors from the port of Basra (including the fictional character Sinbad the Sailor in the One Thousand and One Nights). Nutmeg was traded by Arabs during the Middle Ages and sold to the Venetians for high prices, but the traders did not divulge the exact location of their source in the profitable Indian Ocean trade, and no European was able to deduce its location.

The Banda Islands became the scene of the earliest European ventures in Asia, in order to get a grip on the spice trade. In August 1511, Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Malacca, which at the time was the hub of Asian trade, on behalf of the king of Portugal. In November of the same year, after having secured Malacca and learning of Banda's location, Albuquerque sent an expedition of three ships led by his friend António de Abreu to find it. Malay pilots, either recruited or forcibly conscripted, guided them via Java, the Lesser Sundas, and Ambon to the Banda Islands, arriving in early 1512.[9] The first Europeans to reach the Banda Islands, the expedition remained for about a month, buying and filling their ships with Banda's nutmeg and mace, and with cloves in which Banda had a thriving entrepôt trade.[10] An early account of Banda is in Suma Oriental, a book written by the Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires, based in Malacca from 1512 to 1515. Full control of this trade by the Portuguese was not possible, and they remained participants without a foothold in the islands.

In order to obtain a monopoly, on the production and trade of nutmeg, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) waged a bloody battle with the Bandanese in 1621. Historian Willard Hanna estimated that before this struggle the islands were populated by approximately 15,000 people, and only 1,000 were left (the Bandanese were killed, starved while fleeing, exiled or sold as slaves).[13] The Company constructed a comprehensive nutmeg plantation system on the islands during the 17th century. It included the nutmeg plantations for spice production, several forts for the defense of the spices, and a colonial town for trading and governance. The Dutch were not the only occupants of this region, however. The British skillfully negotiated with the village leaders on the island Rhun to protect them from the Dutch in exchange for a monopoly on their nutmeg. The village leader of Rhun accepted King James I of England as their sovereign, and it became the first overseas English colony. Control of the Banda Islands continued to be contested until 1667 when, in the Treaty of Breda, the British ceded Rhun to the Dutch in exchange for the island of Manhattan and its city New Amsterdam (later New York) in North America.

As a result of the Dutch interregnum during the Napoleonic Wars, the British took temporary control of the Banda Islands from the Dutch and transplanted nutmeg trees, complete with soil, to Sri Lanka, Penang, Bencoolen, and Singapore.[14] (There is evidence that the tree existed in Sri Lanka even before this.)[15] From these locations they were transplanted to their other colonial holdings elsewhere, notably Zanzibar and Grenada. The national flag of Grenada, adopted in 1974, shows a stylised split-open nutmeg fruit. The Dutch retained control of the Spice Islands until World War II.

Connecticut received its nickname ("the Nutmeg State", "Nutmegger") from the claim that some unscrupulous Connecticut traders would whittle "nutmeg" out of wood, creating a "wooden nutmeg", a term which later came to mean any type of fraud.[16]

World production[edit]

World production of nutmeg is estimated to average between 10,000 and 12,000 tonnes per year, with annual world demand estimated at 9,000 tonnes; production of mace is estimated at 1,500 to 2,000 tonnes. Indonesia and Grenada dominate production and exports of both products, with world market shares of 75% and 20%, respectively. Other producers include India, Malaysia (especially Penang, where the trees grow wild within untamed areas[citation needed]), Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, and Caribbean islands, such as St. Vincent. The principal import markets are the European Community, the United States, Japan, and India. Singapore and the Netherlands are major re-exporters.

Medicinal properties and research[edit]


In the 19th century, nutmeg was used as an abortifacient, which led to numerous recorded cases of nutmeg poisoning.[17] Although used as a folk treatment for other ailments, nutmeg has no proven medicinal value today.[17]

One study showed that the compound macelignan isolated from M. fragrans (Myristicaceae) may exert antimicrobial activity against Streptococcus mutans,[18] but this is not a currently used treatment.[17]

In doses exceeding its use as a seasoning, nutmeg may interact with anxiolytic drugs, produce allergic reactions, cause contact dermatitis, or evoke acute episodes of psychosis.[17]

Psychoactivity and toxicity[edit]


In low doses, nutmeg produces no noticeable physiological or neurological response, but in large doses, raw nutmeg has psychoactive effects.[19] In its freshly ground form (from whole nutmegs), nutmeg contains myristicin, a monoamine oxidase inhibitor and psychoactive substance.[17][20] Myristicin poisoning can induce convulsions, palpitations, nausea, eventual dehydration, and generalized body pain.[17][19] For these reasons, whole or ground nutmeg cannot be imported into Saudi Arabia except in spice mixtures containing less than 20 percent nutmeg.[21][22] It is also reputed to be a strong deliriant.

Fatal myristicin poisonings in humans are very rare, but three have been reported, including one in an 8-year-old child and another in a 55-year-old adult, with the latter case attributed to a combination with flunitrazepam.[23]

In case reports, raw nutmeg produces anticholinergic-like symptoms, attributed to myristicin and elemicin.[24][25]

Nutmeg intoxication has effects that vary from person to person, but are often reported to be an excited and confused state with headaches, nausea, dizziness, dry mouth, bloodshot eyes, and memory disturbances.[17] Nutmeg is also reported to induce hallucinogenic effects, such as visual distortions and paranoia. Intoxication takes several hours before the maximum effect is reached.[17] Effects and after-effects can last for several days.[19]

Toxicity during pregnancy[edit]

Nutmeg was once considered an abortifacient, but may be safe for culinary use during pregnancy. However, it inhibits prostaglandin production and contains hallucinogens that may affect the fetus if consumed in large quantities.[26]

Toxicity to dogs[edit]

Nutmeg is highly neurotoxic to dogs and causes seizures, tremors, and nervous system disorders which can be fatal. Nutmeg's rich, spicy scent is attractive to dogs which can result in a dog ingesting a lethal amount of this spice. Eggnog and other food preparations which contain nutmeg should not be given to dogs.[27][28][29]


  1. ^ "Nutmeg". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 
  2. ^ Amitav Ghosh (December 30, 2016). "What Nutmeg Can Tell Us About Nafta". New York Times. 
  3. ^ Dotschkal, Janna. "The Spice Trade’s Forgotten Island". National Geographic. Retrieved 13 April 2017. 
  4. ^ Arthur L. Meyer; Jon M. Vann (2008). The Appetizer Atlas: A World of Small Bites. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 196. ISBN 0-544-17738-X. 
  5. ^ "Sup Konro Rumahan". 
  6. ^ "Pala". Suka Masak. 
  7. ^ Pat Chapman (2007). India Food and Cooking: The Ultimate Book on Indian Cuisine. New Holland Publishers. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-84537-619-2. 
  8. ^ "Simple Pumpkin Pie". Martha Stewart. Retrieved 13 April 2017. 
  9. ^ The Merck Index (1996). 12th edition
  10. ^ Utilization of Tropical Foods: Sugars, Spices and Stimulants: Compendium on Technological and Nutritional Aspects of Processing and Utilization of Tropical Foods, Both Animal and Plant, for Purposes of Training and Field Reference. Food & Agriculture Org. 1989. p. 35. ISBN 978-92-5-102837-7. 
  11. ^ "Description of components of nutmeg". Food and Agriculture Organization. UN. Retrieved 13 April 2017. 
  12. ^ Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. "The Historic and Marine Landscape of the Banda Islands - UNESCO World Heritage Centre". Retrieved 2016-03-04. 
  13. ^ Hanna, Willard (1991). Indonesian Banda: Colonialism and Its Aftermath in the Nutmeg Islands. Moluccas, East Indonesia: Yayasan Warisan dan Budaya Banda Neira. 
  14. ^ Giles Milton, Nathaniel's Nutmeg, 1999, London: Hodder and Stoughton, ISBN 0-340-69675-3
  15. ^ 'Nutmeg', Department of Export Agriculture website
  16. ^ "Connecticut State Library: Nicknames for Connecticut". Retrieved 2016-01-23. 
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h "Nutmeg". 2009. Retrieved 4 May 2017. 
  18. ^ Devi, P. B.; Ramasubramaniaraja, R. (2009). "Dental Caries and Medicinal Plants – An Overview". Journal of Pharmacy Research. 2 (11): 1669–1675. ISSN 0974-6943. 
  19. ^ a b c Demetriades, A. K.; Wallman, P. D.; McGuiness, A.; Gavalas, M. C. (2005). "Low Cost, High Risk: Accidental Nutmeg Intoxication" (pdf). Emergency Medicine Journal. 22 (3): 223–225. PMC 1726685Freely accessible. PMID 15735280. doi:10.1136/emj.2002.004168. 
  20. ^ Stein, U; Greyer, H; Hentschel, H (2001). "Nutmeg (myristicin) poisoning--report on a fatal case and a series of cases recorded by a poison information centre". Forensic Science International. 118 (1): 87–90. PMID 11343860. doi:10.1016/s0379-0738(00)00369-8. 
  21. ^ Ken Albala. Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia. 1. p. 220. 
  22. ^ "The Flavors of Arabia". Retrieved 2015-02-23. 
  23. ^ Stein, U.; Greyer, H.; Hentschel, H. (2001). "Nutmeg (myristicin) poisoning--report on a fatal case and a series of cases recorded by a poison information centre". Forensic Science International. 118 (1): 87–90. PMID 11343860. doi:10.1016/S0379-0738(00)00369-8. 
  24. ^ Shulgin, A. T.; Sargent, T.; Naranjo, C. (1967). "The Chemistry and Psychopharmacology of Nutmeg and of Several Related Phenylisopropylamines" (pdf). Psychopharmacology Bulletin. 4 (3): 13. PMID 5615546. 
  25. ^ McKenna, A.; Nordt, S. P.; Ryan, J. (2004). "Acute Nutmeg Poisoning". European Journal of Emergency Medicine. 11 (4): 240–241. PMID 15249817. doi:10.1097/01.mej.0000127649.69328.a5. 
  26. ^ Herb and drug safety chart Herb and drug safety chart from BabyCentre UK
  27. ^ [1], Toxic Food Guide for Pets
  28. ^ [2], Nutmeg and Cinnamon Toxicity in Dogs
  29. ^ [3], Can I Give My Dog Nutmeg

Further reading[edit]

  • Milton, Giles (1999), Nathaniel's Nutmeg: How One Man's Courage Changed the Course of History
  • Burroughs, William S. (1959). Naked Lunch. Paris: Olympia Press. p. 228.
  • Gable, R. S. (2006). "The toxicity of recreational drugs". American Scientist. 94: 206–208. doi:10.1511/2006.59.3484. 
  • Devereux, P. (1996). Re-Visioning the Earth: A Guide to Opening the Healing Channels Between Mind and Nature. New York: Fireside. pp. 261–262.
  • Brierley, J.H. Spices: The Story of Indonesia’s Spice Trade. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Burnet, Ian. (2011) Spice Islands. NSW (Aus): Rosenberg Publishing.
  • Hanna, Willard. 1991. Indonesian Banda: Colonialism and Its Aftermath in the Nutmeg Islands. Moluccas, East Indonesia: Yayasan Warisan dan Budaya Banda Neira

External links[edit]