Nutmeg is used in lots of recipes, from sweet to savory and from baked goods to beverages. But you may have heard that the spice can be poisonous. Get the facts on when nutmeg turns toxic and when it's safe to enjoy the sweet spice.
What Is Nutmeg?
Nutmeg is a commonly used spice that comes from the nutmeg tree. Grown in Indonesia, the same tree produces the spices mace and nutmeg. Mace is produced from the red covering around the hard, inner seed that is turned into nutmeg. After drying, nutmeg can be sold whole or pre-ground. It's frequently used in spiced desserts and drinks like eggnog, and a pinch can be added to creamy and cheesy sauces and dishes. It can also be used as part of a spice mix in savory meat and vegetarian dishes.
Is Nutmeg Poisonous?
Nutmeg contains a substance called myristicin, a narcotic with very unpleasant toxic side effects if taken in large quantities. Myristicin can be found in a number of other spices and plants but is present in higher amounts in nutmeg. Ingestion of small amounts of nutmeg is harmless to the body, including the amounts called for in all standard recipes. However, the consumption of as little as 2 teaspoons (or 5 grams) of ground nutmeg at once can be toxic It can cause side effects like hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and irregular heartbeat within one to six hours after ingestion. Effects can last for several hours, and, when a large amount is used, can lead to organ failure.
Pregnant women should not ingest large amounts of nutmeg as they risk birth defects or miscarriage. Nutmeg can be especially dangerous when mixed with other drugs since it can change how drugs are processed by the liver. Combining large amounts of nutmeg and other drugs has, on rare occasions, been linked to death.
The effects of nutmeg have not been extensively studied and reported cases of nutmeg poisoning are rare. Individuals should refrain from ingesting more than a typical amount of nutmeg, not exceeding a teaspoon per person. Most recipes call for 1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg or less and feed multiple people, making these dishes perfectly safe without risk of side effects.
Nutmeg and Health
Nutmeg and mace are said to aid in stomach distress like nausea, gas, and diarrhea, and are sometimes used in tonics. The spices are sometimes used as part of a treatment for cancer and other health issues in homeopathic and natural medicine. The effects of nutmeg and its interactions within the body have not been extensively studied. Do not try any home remedies without first consulting your physician.
Buying and Storing Nutmeg
Nutmeg can be bought whole or ground, and both should be stored in air-tight containers in a cool, dry, dark place. Whole nutmeg can be grated into or onto dishes and typically produces a superior flavor. Store your nutmeg out of the reach of children so that accidental nutmeg poisoning is far less likely.
Ehrenpreis, Jamie E et al. Nutmeg poisonings: a retrospective review of 10 years experience from the Illinois Poison Center, 2001-2011.Journal of medical toxicology : official journal of the American College of Medical Toxicology vol. 10,2 (2014): 148-51. doi:10.1007/s13181-013-0379-7
Demetriades AK, Wallman PD, McGuiness A, et al. Low cost, high risk: accidental nutmeg intoxication. Emergency Medicine Journal 2005;22:223-225. doi: 10.1136/emj.2002.004168
FDA Poisonous Plant Database. U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Zhipeng Cao, et al. Hepatotoxicity of nutmeg: A pilot study based on metabolomics. Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, Volume 131, 2020, 110780, doi:10.1016/j.biopha.2020.110780.
Ehrenpreis, Jamie E et al. Nutmeg poisonings: a retrospective review of 10 years experience from the Illinois Poison Center, 2001-2011. Journal of medical toxicology : official journal of the American College of Medical Toxicology vol. 10,2 (2014): 148-51. doi:10.1007/s13181-013-0379-7