Nuts for Nutmeg? You Should BeNutrition
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
The mere mention of nutmeg conjures up thoughts of our favorite cold weather treats, like eggnog and apple pie. But nutmeg and its cousin spice, mace, are much more than just dusted-on additions to holiday recipes.
The ‘nutmeg tree’ is a tall evergreen species reportedly native to the Banda Islands, which are part of Indonesia's Moluccas or Spice Islands. To think that one tree could yield such a bounty of nutrient-rich ingredients is a perfect example of just how magical Mother Nature is. It also explains why the Spice Islands, along with the nutmeg tree, were a closely guarded secret for decades.
A Tale of Two Spices
Nutmeg isn’t even a nut, but rather a seed. If you reference the picture above, you’ll notice vibrant red tendrils. Believe it or not, that is mace. Mace is actually the aril of the nutmeg seed. An ‘aril’ is a specialized outgrowth that partly or completely covers the seed. Arils, by intelligent design, have evolved to enhance their textures and colors to entice animals to transport the seed, thereby assisting in seed dispersal.
Underneath this bright and fleshy casing hides the nutmeg seed. Nutmeg is naturally more pungent than mace and more widely known.
For centuries, nutmeg and mace have been valued not only as a flavoring for food but also for its medicinal properties. Recently, while conducting an archaeological dig on the Banda Islands, researchers uncovered nutmeg residue on ceramic pottery shards. By their calculations, nutmeg is actually about 3,500 years old. That’s 2,000 years older than the previously known use of the spice.
“Thousands of years after people on Pulau Ay [one of the Banda Islands] mixed nutmeg in their pots, this and other spices became extremely valuable commodities that people all over the world used in food and medicine,” according to one source.
The demand for and uses of nutmeg and mace have shifted over the years. Long used as a flavoring for foods in Asia, the Chinese used nutmeg to preserve sausages and meats, while the Japanese would add it to their fish curries. These tightly bonded spices were also used to elevate alcoholic beverages in ancient Rome.
At one time, nutmeg was said to be the most prized commodity other than gold and silver. It was often transported in chests along with precious metals and came with an ornate nutmeg grater to satisfy the palates of the wealthy.
But such fanciful uses disappeared by the 18th century, when attention shifted to more fashionable and emerging trends, like coffee, chocolate and tobacco products. Currently, the Dutch maintain a healthy appetite for nutmeg and mace, whereas most European countries and America have seen nutmeg and mace take a back seat to other flavors and spices. For example, we tend to sprinkle cinnamon, another great nutrient-dense spice, as opposed to nutmeg and mace in our lattes.
Benefits of Nutmeg
Nutmeg is packed with important nutrients such as dietary fiber, manganese, thiamin, vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, copper and macelignan (which is known to have antibacterial properties among other benefits). What makes this staple spice even more appealing is that one tablespoon (7g) of nutmeg will give you:
- Beta-carotene 11%
- Copper 9%
- Dietary Fiber 13%
- Flavonoids 8%
- Folic acid 11%
- Macelignan 8%
- Magnesium 6%
- Manganese 6%
- Niacin 6%
- Folate 9%
- Vitamin A 11%
- Vitamin B 11%
- Vitamin C 11%
- Riboflavin 9%
- Thiamin 11%
Reportedly, nutmeg may be helpful in alleviating gastrointestinal disorders, managing rheumatic pain, healing skin wounds and infections as well as serve as a calming agent. Some additional benefits may include:
- Osteoporosis, Bone and Joint Health. Nutmeg contains lignans. Lignans are a large class of secondary metabolites in plants that have numerous biological effects in mammals, including antitumor, antioxidant activities and may help improve reproductive health. There is also evidence that lignans may play a role in the prevention of osteoporosis. The nutmeg lignan is also said to decrease symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
- Circulation and Blood Pressure. The high mineral content of nutmeg makes it an ideal ingredient to add to your foods and smoothies. The calcium, copper and manganese in nutmeg may help lower blood pressure, while nutmeg’s known stress reducing qualities may help relax blood vessels and improve circulation.
- Mood Booster. Nutmeg contains various compounds that may help to boost mood and quell anxiety. Some researchers have even suggested that nutmeg essential oils (EO), and other EOs, may be helpful in slowing cognitive decline in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and assist in healing brain tissue.
- Zit Zapper and Healthy Skin. Nutmeg is a welcomed sight on your skincare ingredient list. The anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties may work well to keep skin youthful, treat blemishes, acne and unclog pores. It’s known as an Ayurvedic medicine for its antiviral and antibacterial elements that can ward off infection and help with clogged pores. (Try this DIY quick blemish diminisher. Mix equal parts of ground nutmeg and honey, make a paste and apply it on pimples. Leave it for 20 minutes, and then wash off with water).
- Digestion. Nutmeg, with its legion of nutrients and antioxidants, may be an effective treatment for indigestion. According to the National Library of Medicine (NIH), “Ethnobotanical research has shown that nutmeg and mace are used for stimulant and digestive purposes, and are used in local healing practices to treat certain ailments, such as rheumatism, nervousness, stomach and kidney disorders.”
Think of nutmeg as a chameleon spice. Its flavors bend to how you use it. But unlike allspice, cloves and even cinnamon, nutmeg can stand on its own. Nutmeg pairs well with squash, potatoes and meats, like pork and lamb. Like other sweet spices, nutmeg is a shoo-in for dark liquor cocktails, punches and warm winter beverages. Here are several fall feasts and treats to take nutmeg for a spin in your kitchen.
- Food & Wine offers up this savory nutmeg lamb chop recipe that will create an atmospheric winter feast fit for royalty.
- Epicurious suggests pairing your winter meals with this fabulous roasted butternut squash with brown butter and nutmeg recipe.
- The Food Network sets the stage for a decadent dessert course that will likely leave your guests impressed with this nutmeg cheesecake.
Some more unusual uses for nutmeg include adding it to your bath scrubs or bath water to cleanse skin and improve circulation. You can also add a few sprinkles of nutmeg in your tea, if you’re not allergic, to soothe a toothache or a sore throat.
Allergies & Warnings
It is always beneficial to be proactive about what you’re consuming and thoroughly read your ingredient labels, especially if you have a food allergy, take prescription medications and plan on attending parties over the holiday season.
Those with tree nut allergies may be wondering if it is safe to consume nutmeg. Well, the short answer is yes. Again, nutmeg is a seed, not a nut. However, if you have a seed allergy, you may want to refrain from ingesting nutmeg or find out from your doctor or other competent healthcare professionals if it is safe for you to consume nutmeg.
Sometimes understanding different food categories is confusing and can be a bit misleading. Knowing the difference between seeds, tree nuts and legumes can help guide you in the right direction before unknowingly eating something that could land you in the emergency room.
Even though uncommon, there are risks to consuming nutmeg that you should know about before incorporating it into your meals. Nutmeg in high doses can be toxic. In the Middle Ages, nutmeg was rumored to have been used to end unwanted pregnancies. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, speak with your doctor about consuming nutmeg.
Nutmeg also has hallucinogenic properties and can create unfavorable side effects for those that abuse it. Recently, desperate prisoners tested it as a rather miserable drug substitute, and there have been reports of teenagers winding up in the hospital or poison control centers after ingesting large quantities of nutmeg.
According to the New York Times, “The main chemical culprit in nutmeg is called myristicin which forms naturally in the seeds (and in other plants, occurring in trace amounts in carrots). Myristicin belongs to a family of compounds with psychoactive potential that occasionally are used to make much stronger psychotropic drugs. It has been included in recipes for MMDA. And it is chemically related to another compound, safrole, also found in nutmeg, which is sometimes used in the synthesis of the street drug Ecstasy.”
Obviously incidents of nutmeg poisoning are highly unlikely if you’re merely sprinkling it into recipes or putting a dash in your hot chocolate. When introducing any new spice, herb or seasoning into your diet, it is always wise to consult with a healthcare professional prior to use. And remember to be mindful of introducing new spices into your diet if you take prescription medications. You always want to avoid a drug interaction.
Enjoy your healthy life!
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