When Is Nutmeg Poisonous?

Whole nutmeg

Jeff Wasserman / Stocksy

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 more than 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg at once can cause side effects like wild 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.