Nutmeg is a spice derived from several species of Myristica, with the most common being fragrant nutmeg (Myristica fragrans). The seeds are ground into a powder to produce the spice, with the red seed covering, known as the “aril”, used to make mace.
Nutmeg and mace sales are quite low compared to popular spices like turmeric. The European Union imports just over 2,000 tons of nutmeg, but the United Kingdom alone imports twice as much turmeric, and across the EU this figure is well above 15,000 tons. Nutmeg sales see a spike around Christmas—this is also true for cloves, with are imported in similar quantities—as they’re often used in festive drinks and desserts.
Nutmeg versus Mace
Nutmeg and mace come from the same tree and have a very similar taste. Nutmeg is occasionally sold in its seed form, after which it can be grated, but it’s more commonly ground into a fine brown powder. Mace is always dried and grated into a red powder.
They have similar compounds and may provide some of the same health benefits, but they have slightly different tastes, with mace being sweeter and more subtle. Mace is to nutmeg what marjoram is to oregano.
The Health Benefits of Nutmeg and Mace
We’ve covered a lot of spices and herbs on this site and have discussed the health benefits of all of them. Nutmeg is a little different, though, because while there are some potentially useful health benefits, there are also some serious side effects to be aware of. So, before you rush off to consume more nutmeg or mace, make sure you read the section on side effects further down.
1. It Could Relieve Pain
A 2016 study compared nutmeg oil to diclofenac and found it to have more of a positive impact on inflammation levels. (1) The researchers suggested that nutmeg oil could be used to treat inflammatory joint conditions, acute joint pain, and other conditions. The problem is, these effects were the result of topical application of a concentrated oil, and there is nothing to suggest that similar benefits are derived from consuming the pure spice.
Topical applications also increase the risk of contact dermatitis, which is a common side effect of nutmeg.
2. It Could Improve Mood
Nutmeg contains compounds that seem to have a notable effect on mood thanks to the stimulation of serotonin and dopamine. Studies on rats have been very promising thus far, with mood changes and neuroprotective effects noted.
There are suggestions that it could help reduce the risk of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, but there have been no human trials, and the risks and dangers associated with nutmeg use could cause more issues than it solves.
3. It Could Help with Insomnia
We have discussed several herbs and spices linked to relaxation, including the soothing passionflower and the amazing chamomile tea. Nutmeg is another spice that could help you relax. A pinch of nutmeg in a hot cup of tea or a warm glass of milk has been a go-to relaxation aid for many years, and there are also several animal studies backing up this traditional remedy.
One of the few human studies on the insomnia-fighting properties of nutmeg gave 251 patients a nutmeg-containing supplement and asked them to record changes in their sleeping patterns. They noted a significant improvement across the board after just 4 weeks, with an improvement in both sleep and mood and with no adverse reactions reported. (2)
However, this is the only noteworthy human trial conducted thus far, and the herbal supplement used contained several other extracts in addition to nutmeg.
4. It Has Antibacterial Properties
The same compounds thought to be responsible for nutmeg’s mood-lifting and neuroprotective effects could also have an antibacterial effect and may help kill bacteria in the mouth. It could also relieve dental pain and assist with reducing dental plaque.
Dangers of Nutmeg
Most spices are safe in small doses, and even in larger doses the worst that can happen is a little gastrointestinal discomfort—unless you’re talking about chilli peppers, which can cause some nasty side effects when they are abused, or essential oils, which can cause serious adverse reactions.
Nutmeg is a different beast altogether, though. Doses above 10g can trigger hallucinations, extreme nausea, irregular heartbeat, and more, and some of these symptoms may be present at just 5g. It’s mistakenly considered to be a recreational drug, but as many users quickly discover, there is very little of recreational value here. Higher doses can also kill, although such incidences are rare.
The good news is that you need to take a lot to experience these side effects, and in normal culinary doses, you shouldn’t experience any side effects whatsoever. The average recipe calls for no more than a quarter of a teaspoon of nutmeg, and the average serving size may lead to a dose of much less than 1g. It is important to use very small doses, though, as this is one of the few spices where misjudging a recipe can make you very sick.
Other Side Effects of Nutmeg
It is possible to be allergic to nutmeg and mace, but this issue aside, it should be safe and side effect free if you are using it in small doses. It used to be considered unsafe for pregnancy, but the consensus has recently changed on that issue.
It’s not recommended for people with a history of psychiatric conditions, but this is largely the result of the psychological effects produced by large doses, and if you stick with flavoring amounts, it shouldn’t be an issue.
Although rare, nutmeg can also cause contact dermatitis and nausea.
Alternatives to Nutmeg and Mace
These spices have a very unique taste you can’t really replace. It’s strong, it’s warming, and it goes great with spices like cinnamon. But if you’re allergic or worried about the side effects, there are a few other spices that deliver a similar intensity and can also be used for both sweet and savory dishes.
The aforementioned cinnamon is one, but you can also try some dried ginger or even a spice mix. Allspice and pumpkin spice (a popular concoction in the United States, but rarely used here in the UK) will deliver a similar taste.