Healthy Living

Health Benefits and Uses of Nutmeg

Health Benefits and Uses of Nutmeg

Key Takeaways

  • Nutmeg is a very popular spice which not only adds flavor to dishes but also has a lot of health benefits.
  • Nutmeg is very versatile as it is used for medicinal, commercial and culinary purposes.
  • Consumption in large quantities of nutmeg produces narcosis, drowsiness, epileptic convulsions and even death.

What is Nutmeg?

Nutmeg is one of the popular spices used in many recipes, which is actually a seed of the tropical evergreen tree Myristica fragnans, belonging to the family Myristicaceae. This tree is usually 9-12 metres high and produces a fruit. In the whole world, there is no other tree other than nutmeg which has two varied species.

The dried reticulated ‘aril’ of the fruit which is scarlet in color is the mace and the dried seed kernel of the fruit which is hard and brown is nutmeg. Mace encloses the shiny shell of the seed called nutmeg and both mace and nutmeg are obtained when a mature fruit bursts open. Nutmeg is sweeter and pungent than the less common spice, mace. 

Origin and Distribution of Nutmeg

There is a long history of nutmeg being used as a spice since ages. The ancient Romans and Greeks enjoyed its warm, aromatic flavor. The nutmeg spice grows abundantly in the rainforest of Indonesian Moluccas which is also known as Spice Islands.

The Portuguese found the nutmeg tree in the Moluccas and dominated its trade until the Dutch overtook them. Nutmeg is grown in most tropical countries of the world. Apart from this, nutmeg is also popularly cultivated across the regions of Sri Lanka, Malaysia, India, Caribbean and Sumatra. Depending on its origin, its flavor varies.

This spice was introduced in India by the British East India Company in 1800 AD. The major country importing nutmeg from India is Russia. Particularly in India, nutmeg is cultivated in the southern parts of India such as Ernakulam, Thrissur and the Kottayam districts and also in parts of Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari, which are the districts in Tamil Nadu.

Indian Origin Name -

  • Hindi: Jaiphal;
  • Bengali: Jaiphal;
  • Kannada: Jayikai;
  • Tamil: Jathikai;
  • Marathi: Jaiphal;
  • Sanskrit: Jatiphala;
  • Telugu: Jajikai;
  • Gujarati: Jaiphal;
  • and Kashmiri: Zaaphal

Production of Nutmeg across the globe

On an estimated average, 10,000 to 12,000 tonnes of nutmeg is grown worldwide per year. Indonesia and Grenada dominate the export market of nutmeg. 75% of the world’s nutmeg is grown by Indonesia. Another major producer of nutmeg is Grenada. Other producers include India, Papua New Guinea and Caribbean islands such as St. Vincent.

Composition of Nutmeg

General Composition

Nutmeg constitutes volatile and fixed oil along with starch. It also contains proteins, pentosans, resin and mineral elements. Owing to the geographic origin, quality, storage duration and growing locations, the percentages of constituents between the spices differ. The therapeutic action is due to the fixed oil.

Nutmeg butter which consists of fixed oil and volatile oil mainly contains saturated fats. The non-volatile includes lignans, phenolic acids, glycosides, sterols and miscellaneous compounds. Nutmeg is a good source of potassium, magnesium and phosphorus. It had also been reported to contain ether extract, carbohydrates, fiber, calcium and iron

Chemical Composition

Nutmeg has 6.5% to 16% essential oil, also called oil of myristica. The essential oil mainly has sabinene, α- pinene, β- pinene, with myrcene, 1,8- cineole, myristicin, limonene, safrole and terpinen 4-ol.

Preparation and Consumption of Nutmeg

When ground, nutmeg loses its flavor quickly, so generally it is grated. In order for its flavor to be retained, it is added towards the end of cooking. Nutmeg is mostly used in sweet or spicy dishes due to its sweet spicy aroma.

Dishes such as puddings, spice cakes or pies have tinge of nutmeg added to it. It is commonly used in the pungent garam masala of North India as a spice blend. Nutmeg is popularly also used in cheeses such as cheese fondues, cheese sauce and souffles.

It is also added in soups and works well with tomatoes, slit pea and black beans. One should ensure to use nutmeg in moderation. A pinch or two is more than enough to be added to any dish. Too much is not good for health. Nutmeg is also known to compliment dishes such as egg, spinach or eggplant.

Plant Description and Cultivation

The branches of nutmeg tree have natural conical shape and spread in whorls. Nutmeg has dark green leaves which look glossy, and these leaves are arranged in oval or lanceolate space, alternatively. The trunk is grey brown in color. The inflorescence appears in cyme. Each cyme bears numerous flowers.

The nutmeg flowers are bell shaped yellow in color having a sweet fragrance. The seed inside this plant is shiny dark brown and is covered with lacy red aril. Nutmeg trees are dioecious and the sex of the tree is known only after they flower i.e. 6-7 years after planting.  Monoecious condition of this plant is also reported. But the quality of the spice is found to be poor.

The male trees have generally smaller sized leaves and erect branches. Also they are less leafy than the female trees and shape is not regular. Hence, the male and female trees can be easily identified by a trained person.

Climate: Nutmeg prefers warm and volcanic rich soils with a humid climate having an annual rainfall of 150cm or more. Water logged conditions and dry climate are not good for nutmeg. The soil should not be sandy and not too wet or dry.  Certain amount of iron is beneficial for this tree.

Varieties: In world trade, two basic types of nutmeg are valued, the West India and East India types. In the Islands of Grenada and Trinidad, the West Indian variety is grown.

The East Indian varieties are highly aromatic and superior to the West Indian variety. In East Indian variety, the fruits are ovoid. It is grayish brown in color, with dark brown veins, in which the volatile oil is found. In Maharashtra, ‘Konkan Sugandha’ is an improved variety released from Konkan Krishi Vidya Peeth, Dapoli.  Another high yielding variety is ‘A 9/4', a clonal selection.

Propagation: Nutmegs are propagated by seeds in nursery beds. However, vegetative propagation by patch-budding and epicotyl grafting, approach grafting has proved to be successful.

Nursery: For raising nursery, healthy fruits harvested during June-July is used. Seeds from these naturally split fruits are extracted from the pericarp. These seeds are sown in sand beds.  Regular watering is required for good germination. After sowing, germination commences from 30-90 days. Sprouts which are 20 days old are transported into polythene bags which contain soil sand and cow dung mixture.

Plantation – Planting of nutmeg plant is started at the onset of the monsoon season. It can also be grown best as an intercrop in the clove and coconut gardens. In early growth phase of nutmeg, banana can be raised for shade. Sufficient water is required for its growth in summer season. The quantity and frequency depends upon the region and condition of the plant.

Pests and diseases

  • Die back - In this disease, the branches dry up. The branches which get infected have to be cut and removed. The portion which has been cut needs to be pasted with 1 percent of Bordeaux mixture.
  • Thread blight - These are of two types. The first is called as Marasmium pulcherrima, which is white thread blight and the second is Marasmius equicrinus, which is horse hair blight. Phytosanitation and shade regulation can be adopted in order to manage these diseases.
  • Rotting of the fruit - In some trees, one would notice shedding and fruit splitting. The reasons for the same would be physiological and pathological. One percent of Bordeaux mixture can be sprayed when the fruits are half mature.
  • Shot hole - In this disease, necrotic spots develops on the lamina of the leaf. 1% Bordeaux mixture prophylactic spray is effective against this disease.
  • Black scale and white scale - Black scale, Saissetia nigra, occurs on the thick branches and desaps the tissues. The shoots then develop sooty mold cover. One can get this controlled by spot spraying with 0.025 percent of quinalphos. White scale, Pseudaulacaspis cockerelli, causes severe infestation on leaves. The leaves start spotting yellow streaks, and gradually after a certain period of time, these leaves wilt and dry.
  • Harvest - The female nutmeg tree starts reflecting its fruits from the sixth year and 9 months after flowering, the fruits are ready for harvesting. June- August is the peak period. When the fruits ripen, their pericarp split open. 
  • Processing - The fruits which are on the trees are often collected with the help of a long pole which has a basket attached to it. During the harvesting process, the seeds are removed and the mace from these seeds is flattened between the boards. The seeds are then dried until they rattle within the shell. Trees of 15 years of age and above will yield about 1000-2000 or more fruits.
  • Grading - The dried nutmegs are graded by hand and then fumigated with methyl bromide. This is done in order to protect them from storage pests. Grading is done according to their weight shape and color.

Uses of Nutmeg

Nutmeg has been used since ancient times to boost overall health and also as a remedy for various ailments. Hence, it is popular for its many health benefits, some of which are:

  • Medical and Pharmacological uses: Oil of nutmeg is useful in the treatment of inflammation of the bladder and urinary tract. It is also used externally as a stimulant and ointment as a counter-irritant. The pharmacological properties are attributed to the compounds present in the essential oil. Nutmeg has been used in the pharmaceutical sector for preparation of medicines which provide relief from stomach ache, nausea, vomiting, flatulence and rheumatism. Its seed oil also has antiseptic, analgesic and antirheumatic properties. Traditionally, they have been used to treat hemorrhoids, cholera, stomach cramps and anxiety.
  • Commercial uses: Nutmeg oil is used for commercial purposes such as in the preparation of scented soaps, tobacco and also in the making of perfumes.
  • Nutmeg butter uses: The process of making nutmeg butter starts with chopping and steaming the nuts so that a smooth paste is formed. It is semi solid, reddish brown in color. It tastes and smells like nutmeg. Nutmeg butter is used in the form of ointments, hair lotions and plaster as a mild external stimulant. It is also used against rheumatism, paralysis and sprains.
  • Digestive health: The fiber content value of nutmeg is usually retained in its powdered form. This aids in the digestive process. This powdered content also helps in the secretion of various gastric juices which soothes the process of digestion and provides relief from the discomfort of constipation
  • Brain Health: The presence of Myristicin and Macelignan in the essential oils has proved to help reduce the degradation of neural pathways which affect people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Culinary uses: The pericarp of the food is locally used in the preparation of jellies, pickles, jams, chutneys, candies, beverages etc. since nutmeg and mace are particularly good in sweet foods viz. dough nuts and sweet dough especially, and hence they are generally classified as baking spices. They are frequently included in soups and preserves, in sauces and in combination with dairy products. They are also included in recipes for curried meat and other products.
  • Pain relief: Menthol, a component of nutmeg has natural pain-relieving characteristics which helps to provide relief from pain associated with strains, injuries, wounds or chronic inflammation caused due to arthritis.
  • Antimicrobial activity: Against 25 genera of bacteria, nutmeg oil has shown antibacterial activity. The alcoholic extracts show antibacterial activity against Micrococcus var. aureus.
  • Insecticidal activity: It has strong antifeedant activity, fumigant toxicity and contact toxicity against the insects, Tribolium castaneum and Sitophilus zeamais.
  • Antiamoebic activity: Essential oil at a concentration of 0.5μl/ml is active against Entamoeba histolytica. 
  • Anticancer activity: It has been documented in studies involving animals that the essential oil of nutmeg possesses excellent anticarcinogenic properties. Research has shown that a certain amount of the methanol compound along with its essential oil can actually lead to death of cells, which is also called apoptosis.
  • Detoxification of the body:  Most toxins are deposited and collected in the liver and kidney due to pollution, drugs, alcohol or natural organic toxins. These can be eliminated with the help of nutmeg. The active ingredients present in nutmeg help to dissolve kidney stones and increase the efficiency of the kidney as well as the liver. Nutmeg is also termed as a tonic.
  • Oral health: Conditions such as halitosis, which is also known as bad breath, can be cured with the healing power of nutmeg since it contains antibacterial components. The antibacterial properties boost the immunity of the teeth and gums by killing the bacteria in the mouth.

Safety Precaution

The active ingredient myristicin in nutmeg possess narcotic properties. Consumption in large quantities produces narcosis, drowsiness, epileptic convulsions and even death. One should note that anyone can misuse the powdered form of nutmeg as a hallucinogenic drug.

Pregnant women should avoid using nutmeg as it can cause miscarriage. Women who are breastfeeding should also avoid the same. Patients with psychiatric illness should use nutmeg with caution as it can cause feeling of anxiety. Nutmeg should be kept out of the reach of children and pets. Touching the nuts may cause an allergic skin reaction.