Nutmeg refers to the seed or ground spice of several species of the
Myristica fragrans (fragrant nutmeg or true nutmeg)
is a dark-leaved evergreen tree cultivated for two spices derived from
its fruit: nutmeg and mace. It is also a commercial source of an
essential oil and nutmeg butter. Other members of the genus, such
as M. argentea (Papuan nutmeg) and M. malabarica (Bombay
nutmeg), are of limited commercial value. The California nutmeg
(Torreya californica) has a similar fruit but is not closely related
1 Common nutmeg
3 Botany and cultivation
4 Culinary uses
5 Essential oil
8 World production
9 Medicinal properties and research
10 Psychoactivity and toxicity
Toxicity during pregnancy
Toxicity to pets
12 Further reading
13 External links
Nutmeg is the spice made from the seed of the fragrant nutmeg
Myristica fragrans) tree. The spice has a distinctive pungent
fragrance and a warm slightly sweet taste; it is used to flavour many
kinds of baked goods, confections, puddings, potatoes, meats,
sausages, sauces, vegetables, and such beverages as eggnog.
The seeds are dried gradually in the sun over a period of six to eight
weeks. During this time the nutmeg shrinks away from its hard seed
coat until the kernels rattle in their shells when shaken. The shell
is then broken with a wooden club and the nutmegs are picked out.
Dried nutmegs are grayish brown ovals with furrowed surfaces. The
nutmegs are roughly egg-shaped, about 20.5–30 mm
(0.81–1.18 in) long and 15–18 mm (0.59–0.71 in)
wide, weighing 5–10 g (0.18–0.35 oz) dried.
Two other species of genus
Myristica may be used to adulterate nutmeg
as a spice.
Mace is the spice made from the reddish seed covering (aril) of the
nutmeg seed. Its flavour is similar to nutmeg but more delicate; it is
used to flavour baked goods, meat, fish, vegetables and in preserving
In the processing of mace, the crimson-colored aril is removed from
the nutmeg seed that it envelops and is flattened out and dried for 10
to 14 days. Its color changes to pale yellow, orange, or tan. Whole
dry mace consists of flat pieces—smooth, horny, and brittle—about
40 mm (1.6 in) long.
Botany and cultivation
Nutmeg tree (
The most important commercial species is the common, true or fragrant
Myristica fragrans (Myristicaceae), native to the Banda
Islands in the Moluccas (or
Spice Islands) of Indonesia. 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. 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
(seeds) and asexually (cuttings or grafting). Sexual propagation
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 reproduction bears inconsistent yields,
grafting is the preferred method of propagation. Epicotyl grafting (a
variation of cleft grafting using seedlings), approach grafting, and
patch budding have proved successful, with epicotyl grafting being the
most widely adopted standard. Air layering is an alternative though
not preferred method because of its low (35–40%) success rate.
The first harvest of nutmeg trees takes place seven to nine years
after planting, and the trees reach full production after twenty
Red aril and seed within fruit
Aril surrounding nutmeg seed
Indonesian manisan pala (nutmeg sweets)
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
Nutmeg is used for flavouring many dishes, and nowadays is
mostly found in Western supermarkets in ground or grated form. Whole
nutmeg can also be ground at home, and graters specifically designed
for grating nutmeg have been in existence - according to U.S.
publication The Journal of Antiques & Collectibles - since before
In Indonesian cuisine, nutmeg is used in various dishes, mainly in
many spicy soups, such as some variant of soto, konro, 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).
In Indian cuisine, nutmeg is used in many sweet, as well as savoury,
dishes (predominantly in Mughlai cuisine). In
Kerala Malabar region,
grated nutmeg is used in meat preparations and also sparingly added to
desserts for the flavour. It may also be used in small quantities in
garam masala. Ground nutmeg is also smoked in India.
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
Nutmeg is a common spice for pumpkin pie and
in recipes for other winter squashes such as baked acorn squash. In
the Caribbean, nutmeg is often used in drinks such as the Bushwacker,
Painkiller, and Barbados rum punch. Typically, it is a sprinkle on the
top of the drink.
The pericarp (fruit covering) is used to make jam, or is finely
sliced, cooked with sugar, and crystallised to make a fragrant candy.
Sliced nutmeg fruit flesh is made as manisan (sweets), either wet,
which is seasoned in sugary syrup liquid, or dry coated with sugar, a
dessert called manisan pala in Indonesia. In
Penang cuisine, dried,
shredded nutmeg rind with sugar coating is used as toppings on the
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
Malabar region of India, it is used for juice, pickles and
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. In its pure form, myristicin is
a toxin, and consumption of excessive amounts of nutmeg can result in
myristicin poisoning. The oil is colourless or light yellow, and
smells and tastes of nutmeg. It 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, such
as toothpaste, and as an ingredient in some cough syrups.
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.
Nutmeg butter is obtained from the nut by expression. It is semisolid,
reddish-brown in colour, and tastes and smells of nutmeg. About
75% (by weight) of nutmeg butter is trimyristin, 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
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
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 a total
approximate land area of 8,150 hectares.
Nutmeg is known to have been a prized and costly spice in European
medieval cuisine as a flavouring, medicinal, and preservative agent.
Theodore the Studite
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.
Nutmeg was known as a valuable commodity by Muslim sailors from the
Basra (including the fictional character
Sinbad the Sailor
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
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
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
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. 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. 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
In order to obtain a monopoly, on the production and trade of nutmeg,
Dutch East India Company
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). 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, but the English presence
on Rhun only lasted until 1624. 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
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. (There is evidence that the tree existed
Sri Lanka even before this.) 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
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.
World production of nutmeg is estimated to average between 10,000 and
12,000 tonnes per year, with annual world demand estimated at over
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), Papua New Guinea,
Sri Lanka, and
Caribbean islands, such as St. Vincent. The principal
import markets are the European Community, the United States, Japan,
Singapore and the Netherlands are major re-exporters.
Medicinal properties and research
In the 19th century, nutmeg was thought to be an abortifacient, which
led to numerous recorded cases of nutmeg poisoning. Although used
as a folk treatment for other ailments, nutmeg has no proven medicinal
One study showed that the compound macelignan isolated from Myristica
fragrans may exert antimicrobial activity against Streptococcus
mutans, but this is not a confirmed treatment.
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.
Psychoactivity and toxicity
In low doses, nutmeg produces no noticeable physiological or
neurological response, but in large doses, raw nutmeg has psychoactive
effects deriving from anticholinergic-like hallucinogenic
mechanisms attributed to myristicin and elemicin. Myristicin,
a monoamine oxidase inhibitor and psychoactive substance, can
induce convulsions, palpitations, nausea, eventual dehydration, and
generalized body pain. For these reasons in some countries,
whole or ground nutmeg may have import restrictions except in spice
mixtures containing less than 20 percent nutmeg.
Nutmeg poisonings occur by accidental consumption in children and by
intentional abuse with other drugs in teenagers. Fatal myristicin
poisonings in humans are 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.
Nutmeg intoxication can vary greatly from person to person, but is
often associated with side effects such as excitedness, anxiety,
confusion, headaches, nausea, dizziness, dry mouth, redness in eyes,
Nutmeg poisoning is also reported to induce
hallucinogenic effects, such as visual distortions and paranoia.
Although rarely reported, nutmeg overdose can result in death,
especially if combined with other drugs. Intoxication takes
several hours before maximum effect is experienced. The effects of
nutmeg intoxication may last for several days.
Toxicity during pregnancy
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.
Toxicity to pets
While the spicy scent of nutmeg may be attractive to pets, there is
potential for toxicity if large amounts are consumed.
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