Nutmeg: Tree, History, Health Benefits and Side Effects

Nutmeg: Tree, History, Health Benefits and Side Effects

Nutmeg: Tree, History and Medicinal Uses

-T. V. Venkateswaran

Nutmeg, spice consisting of the seed of the Myristica fragrans, native to the Moluccas or Spice Islands of Indonesia was the reason for many a colonial wars. Called jathikai in Tamil, Jaiphal in Hindi, the nutmeg tree is a large a tropical evergreen that produces two spices — mace and nutmeg. Nutmeg is the seed kernel inside the fruit and mace is the lacy covering (aril) on the kernel. As a part of the ‘ecological imperialism’, taken out from its native land and planted in the Caribbean, the spice became so important that it finds a pride of place in the flag of Grenada. Though called ‘nut’meg, Nutmeg is not a nut, but the kernel of an apricot-like fruit. Mace is an arillus, a thin leathery tissue between the stone and the pulp. The English word “nutmeg” comes from the Latin “nux”, meaning nut, and muscat, meaning musky. Tucking a nutmeg into the left armpit to attract admirers; used as amulets to protect against evil; Nutmeg has long been lauded as possessing or imparting magical powers.

Nutmeg History:

Nutmeg is indigenous to the Banda Islands, a tiny archipelago in Eastern Indonesia (Moluccas). However, the main producing countries today are Indonesia (East Indian Nutmeg) and Grenada (West Indian Nutmeg). While Indonesian nutmegs are mainly exported to Europe and Asia, Grenada nutmeg mostly finds its way into the USA.

Nutmeg grown in the East Asia was traded by Arabs to Europe since 6th century. The spice was well received and Chaucer the Poet commended

There springen herbs grate and smalle

The licoris and the setewole
And many a clove gilofre
And nutmemuge [nutmeg] to put in ale
Whether it be moist or stale.

The Arabs were the exclusive importers of the spice to Europe until 1512, when Vasco da Gama reached the Moluccas and claimed the islands for Portugal. To preserve their new monopoly, the Portuguese (and from 1602, the Dutch) restricted the trees to the islands of Banda and Amboina. Around 1600s nutmeg was so important as an expensive commercial spice of the Western world that it was subject of Dutch plots to keep prices high and of English and French counterplots to obtain fertile seeds for transplantation. The Dutch were especially cautious, since the part of the fruit used, as a spice, is also the seed, so that anyone with the spice could propagate it. To protect against this, the Dutch bathed the seeds in lime, which would prevent them from growing. They even sent out workers to destroy renegade trees.

Alas; Man proposes but nature disposes; the design of the Dutch in restricting the growing of nutmeg exclusively to their enclave was thwarted by birds! Birds such as pigeons carried the fruit to other islands, before it was harvested, scattering the seeds, much to the chagrin of the Dutch. The Dutch sent out search and destroy crews to control the spread and when there was an abundant harvest, they even burned nutmeg to keep its supply under control. Despite these precautions, the French, led by Pierre Poivre (Peter Piper) smuggled nutmeg seeds and clove seedlings to start a plantation on the island of Mauritius, off the east coast of Africa, near Madagascar. In 1796 the British took over the Moluccas and spread the cultivation to other East Indian islands and then to the Caribbean. Nutmeg is deeply entrenched and was so successful in Grenada that it now calls itself the Nutmeg Island, designing its flag in the green, yellow and red; colours of nutmeg and including a stylized graphic image of nutmeg in one corner.

Nutmeg main constituents:

Nutmeg contains about 10% essential oil, which is mostly composed of terpene hydrocarbons (sabine and pinenes; furthermore camphene, p-cymene, phellandrene, terpinene, limonene, myrcene, together 60 to 90%), terpene derivatives (linalool, geraniol, terpineol, together 5 to 15%) and phenylpropanoids (myristicin, elemicin, safrole, together 2 to 20%). Oil of mace (up to 12% in the spice) contains the same aroma components in slightly different amounts, furthermore traces of eugenol and isoeugenol. Of the latter group, myristicin (methoxy-safrole, typically 4%) is unique to Nutmeg and is responsible for its hallucinogenic effect. Nonetheless, Nutmeg is only weakly hallucinogenic; therefore one needs large dosage typically, one half to one nut for a “trip”. Warning: the large dosage may give rise to very unpleasant side-effects caused by other components of nutmeg, which include prolonged extreme nausea and long-term hypersensitivity to nutmeg. The hallucinogenic phenylpropanoids themselves are hepatotoxins and far from harmless for frequent users.

Nutmeg Plant:

A large tropical evergreen growing on average to 12 m and reaching as high as 20 m. The bark is a dark grey-green which produces a yellow juice which oxidizes to red. It is thickly branched with dense foliage with tough, dark green, oval leaves about 10 cm long. The trees are dioecious, meaning it has separate male and female plants, both being required for fertilization. It has small, light yellow bell- shaped flowers. The pale yellow fruit is a drupe, grooved like an apricot, splitting along the groove when ripe to expel the seed. It prefers the rich volcanic soils and hot, humid conditions of the tropics. Nutmegs are propagated by seeds in nursery beds and after about six months they are transplanted to the plantation. It takes five years for the trees to flower, so that the sex can be determined and the males can be thinned out, leaving the optimum situation of one male for every ten females. Full bearing occurs after 15 years and the trees continue to bear fruit for about fifty years. A single mature tree produces up to 2,000 nutmegs per year.

The Spice:

The nutmeg seed is encased in a mottled yellow, edible fruit, the approximate size and shape of a small peach. The fruit splits in half to reveal a net-like, bright red covering over the seed. Under the aril is a dark shiny nut-like pit, and inside that is the oval shaped seed, which is the nutmeg. After collection, the aril-enveloped nutmegs are conveyed to curing areas where the mace is removed, flattened out, and dried. The nutmegs are dried gradually in the sun and turned twice daily 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 truncheon and the nutmegs are picked out. Nutmegs are usually sold without the mace or hard shell. They are oval, about 25 mm in length, lightly wrinkled and dark brown on the outside, lighter brown on the inside. Nutmeg whole or ground, is usually labeled as ‘East Indian’ or ‘West Indian’ to indicate the source; and often coated with lime to protect against insects and fungus. Nowadays though this practice is giving way to other forms of fumigation.

Mace is the aril -the bright red, lacy covering- of the nutmeg seed shell. The mace is removed from the shell and its broken parts are known as blades.

The history of mace is closely tied to the history of nutmeg for obvious reasons, though the two items have been treated separately. Because the yield of mace is much less than nutmeg’s it has had greater value. A pile of fruit large enough to make one hundred pounds of nutmeg produces a single pound of mace. When the Dutch controlled the Moluccas (the Spice Islands), one colonial administrator, reportedly sent orders that the colonists should plant fewer nutmeg trees and more mace trees!

In its natural state, mace is a bright crimson lace up to 35 mm long, encasing the brown nutmeg in irregular, fleshy lobes. As it is dried, it develops its characteristic aroma but loses its bright red colour. Mace from the West Indies is a yellowish brown colour and with fewer holes than mace from East Indian nutmegs which are more orange when dried.

Both spices are strongly aromatic, resinous and warm in taste. The flavour is described as nutty, warm and slightly sweet. Mace is generally said to have a finer aroma than nutmeg, but the difference is small. Nutmeg quickly loses its fragrace when ground; therefore, the necessary amount should be grated from a whole nut immediately before usage.

icide with probable neurotoxic effects on dopaminergic neurons. It is actually glyceryl trimyristate, C3H5(C14H27O2)3, found in spermaceti and many vegetable oils and fats, especially coconut oil and fixed nutmeg (myristica) oil. It is reported to causes brain damage. It is probably converted to an amphetamine metabolite in the liver, therefore it is neuroactive. Intoxication of Myristicin or nutmeg essential oil may be similar to XTC intoxication, mimicing psychosis (e.g. false schizophrenia diagnosis, etc.). However, often the effect is no more than an extremely unpleasant, long- lasting nausea and long-time revulsion to nutmeg.

Culinary uses:

Mace is used to flavour milk-based sauces and is widely used in processed meats. It is also added sparingly to delicate soups and sauces with fish or seafood. Pickles or chutneys may be seasoned with mace. Nutmeg is a traditional flavouring for cakes, gingerbreads, biscuits and fruit or milk puddings. Today, nutmeg’s popularity has shrunken and the spice is less used, still most in Arab countries, Iran and Northern India, where both nutmeg and mace appear in delicately-flavoured meat dishes.

Attributed Medicinal Properties:

Used in small dosages nutmeg can reduce flatulence, aid digestion, improve the appetite and treat diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. Nutmeg’s flavour and fragrance come from oil of myristica, containing myristicin, a poisonous narcotic.

Myristicin can cause hallucinations, vomiting, epileptic symptoms and large dosages can cause death. These effects will not be induced, however, in amounts usually made use of in culinary.

Other than culinary use, due to its aroma, the essential oil derived from Nutmeg has been used as a natural flavouring extract and as a perfume in the cosmetic industries. In particular, the oil has been used as a flavouring agent, replacing ground nutmeg in order to avoid leaving particles in foods and beverages. For example, it has been used to flavour baked goods, beverages, candies, meats and syrups. The essential oil has found widespread use in the cosmetic industry when a spicy odour is required. For example, it has been employed as a flavour in dental creams in combination with peppermint, methyl salicylate and cloves. Nutmeg butter, a fatty extract with aroma is used as mild external stimulant in ointments, hair lotions and plasters.

Historically, nutmeg has been used as a form of medicine to treat many illnesses ranging from those affecting the nervous system to the digestive system. However in the modern pharmaceuticals, a non-drowsy and alcohol-free cough syrup; impregnated tissue that helps to clear congestion; pain relieving ointment; all have the essential oil of nutmeg as a major ingredient.

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