Like many other spices, nutmeg is one of those fragrant additions to food that brings a little kick of warmth and curious complexity that, once tasted in a dish, can't be done without. Used in Chinese and East Indian cultures as a curative and aphrodisiac, as well as flavor enhancer, it was once a rare, costly spice prized by Byzantine traders who obtained it from Arabia.
The earliest references to the nutmeg tree pinpoint its origin to Moluccas Island, aka Spice Islands, in the Indonesian rainforest. Nutmeg is actually a fruit with a single seed (which makes it a drupe), similar in size to an apricot. It's intertwined, one might say, with a softer substance: mace, another valuable spice harvested at the same time. As the seed matures, the nutmeg kernel splits from the mace in a sort of lace pattern.
After being harvested, processing these spices is a rather complicated procedure. The outside of the fruit is removed to expose the kernel. Then, the mace is carefully peeled off, flattened into strips, and dried before being sold either whole or finely ground. The kernels are generally sun- or machine-dried for several days or even weeks, until the nutmeg rattles inside the shell, which is broken, extracted, and soaked in limewater. Then, it's ground into the spice we buy at the store.
Whole nutmegs, sometimes available in supermarkets, can be ground at home using a pepper mill, processor, or mortar and pestle. Ground spices release flavor quicker than in whole form, and freshly ground nutmeg is one spice that imparts a pungency that fades over several months.
Nutmeg is used for sweet dishes in India and savory ones in the Middle East. In Europe, potatoes, eggs, and meats are spiced with nutmeg, as well as soups, sauces, and baked goods.
Health Benefits of Nutmeg
One ounce or 28 grams of ground nutmeg is a lot – just a teaspoon can very effectively flavor an entire batch of oatmeal raisin cookies. But this amount demonstrates its nutritive benefits. Manganese is the clear winner as far as content, at 41% of the daily recommended value. It delivers an amazing array of advantages within the body, from blood clotting and regulating the blood sugar, to metabolizing carbohydrates and absorbing calcium. It also helps form tissues, bones, and sex hormones.
Copper and magnesium make very respectable contributions with 13% and 14%, respectively. Essential to human health, copper must be synthesized by the body and absorbed on a regular basis since it can't be manufactured by itself. Manganese and copper both contain superoxide dismutase, an antioxidant enzyme that repairs cells and reduces the "oxidative stress" you hear about, which is essentially the same as the beginning of the "rusting" process inside the cells.
Both nutmeg and mace contain antioxidants and disease-preventing phytochemicals. Some of these are completely unique. Trimyristin and other essential volatile oils provide the fragrance and flavor; myristicin and elemicin, ironically, contain properties that soothe, as well as stimulate areas of your brain, and eugenol is used topically for relieving joint, muscular and toothache pain. Other oils are safrole, pinene, camphene, dipentene, cineole, linalool, sabinene, safrole, terpeniol. Released from these are compounds that are antifungal, antidepressant and gas-inhibitive for more comfortable digestion.
Other health benefits of nutmeg come from potassium (for heart rate and blood pressure control), zinc, and iron (for red blood cell production and as a co-factor for cytochrome oxidases enzymes) as well as B-vitamins, vitamins A and C, folate, riboflavin, niacin, and the flavonoid antioxidants betacarotene and cryptoxanthin, which are essential for optimum health.
Interestingly, it's probably the active agent myristicin in nutmeg and mace that imbue stimulating effects, which, in large amounts, can be narcotic if not downright hallucinogenic. This compound is also present in parsley, dill, and star anise, but at a much lesser degree.
Nutmeg Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 3.5 ounces (100 grams), ground
|Calories from Fat
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
Studies on Nutmeg
Methanol extracts of Myristica fragrans (nutmeg) significantly inhibited Jurkat leukemia cell proliferation and induced apoptosis in a university trial, although the mechanism causing the apoptosis was not clear.1
In another study, scientists evaluated nutmeg’s bactericidal potential against three types of streptococcus bacteria. In conclusion, their report outlined the potential effect of ethanol extracts from nutmeg as a natural agent that can be incorporated in oral care products.2
Nutmeg Healthy Recipes:
Yam Chips with Cinnamon and Nutmeg
✓ 2 large yams, sliced ¼-inch thick
✓ Olive oil, to drizzle
✓ 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
✓ 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
✓ Honey, to drizzle
- Preheat oven to 450°F.
- Place sliced yams in a rectangular glass dish. Drizzle lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg. Drizzle with honey. Place in oven for 20 minutes.
- Allow to cool slightly before serving. Makes 4 servings.
(From Healthy Recipes for Your Nutritional Type by Dr. Mercola)
Nutmeg Fun Facts
Venetian spice traders made sure 12th century European cuisine was well supplied with nutmeg from the Spice Islands. But Portuguese explorers caught on to the general location of this valuable commodity, and in 1512 were able to pinpoint the precise few islands among thousands in the Malay Peninsula growing nutmeg.
Commander Francisco Serrâo, along with two ships, was the first European to gather nutmeg and supply the known world. Then the Dutch took over in the 17th century, burning all the nutmeg trees on every island except for those in two plantations which they controlled. Luckily, already-transported nutmeg trees had begun to proliferate in places like the Caribbean and Grenada, where they eventually became the main source.
A rare, costly spice once prized by Byzantine traders, nutmeg has an ancient history for its curative as well as culinary uses. Originally from the Spice Islands, nutmeg was one of those sought-after spices that launched a thousand ships. The spice wars between Indonesia, Portugal, and the Netherlands almost rendered the nutmeg tree extinct, but early transportation and cultivation saved it for posterity. It's a good thing.
In spite of its time-intensive harvesting process, nutmeg imparts an incredible array of nutritional benefits such as manganese, copper, and magnesium, as well as antioxidants and volatile oils that can both soothe and stimulate the brain, relieve joint, muscular, and toothache pain, and provide antifungal, antidepressant, and gas-inhibitive functions.