Spice It Up! Boosting Your Health with Spices and Herbs (Part 3)

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I enjoy cooking and baking, especially around the holidays. And this time of year is perfect for what I consider to be a “trifecta” of spices: cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. So, this week, we’ll take a closer look at nutmeg.

What is Nutmeg, Anyway?
Nutmeg trees actually produce two spices: nutmeg and mace. The trees, which can grow as tall as 66 feet, are native to the Banda Islands of Indonesia and are part of the “Spice Islands.” Nutmeg is from the seed kernel of the nutmeg fruit, which looks like an apricot, and mace comes from the red, lace-like covering that surrounds the nutmeg kernel. You can buy a nutmeg kernel, which is small, brown, and wrinkled, or you can buy nutmeg already ground.


What are the Health Benefits?
Nutmeg has been used in some interesting ways over the ages. For example, Henry VI apparently had the streets of Rome fumigated with nutmeg before his arrival. In the middle ages, men kept a nutmeg kernel in their armpit to attract admirers (that couldn’t have been comfortable!). Nutmeg has also been used to treat a number of conditions, including the following:

  • Gastroenteritis
  • Dysentery
  • Vomiting
  • Indigestion
  • Arthritis
  • Muscle pain
  • Poor circulation
  • Toothache
  • Anxiety

Nutmeg is also used in ayurvedic medicine for digestive problems, premature ejaculation, and urinary incontinence. Nutmeg oil is used in some medicines, dental products (it seems to help kill off bacteria in the mouth), and perfumes. As a supplement, nutmeg is available in capsule form, and it is also used in Chinese medicine.

Some words of warning: Ingesting too much nutmeg can be harmful. Nutmeg contains myristicin, also known as methoxy-safrole, a substance found in nutmeg oil. Myristicin has hallucinogenic properties, and may lead to nausea, vomiting, double vision, circulation problems, and psychoactive effects.

The amount of nutmeg that we typically use in cooking or baking is harmless. But ingesting more than two teaspoons of ground nutmeg (or roughly one nutmeg kernel) may cause some unpleasant side effects. Side effects often occur several hours after ingestion. Too much nutmeg can be fatal. Also, nutmeg may interact with antianxiety medications, such as diazepam (brand name Valium), ondansetron (Zofran), and buspirone (BuSpar).

Nutmeg and Diabetes
There isn’t a lot of evidence linking nutmeg to improved diabetes control, at least at this point. However, in studies done in India with rats, nutmeg extract lowered glucose, stimulated beta cells to release insulin, improved blood lipids, and controlled body weight. This data was presented at the British Pharmaceutical Conference in 2006. It seems too soon to tell if and how nutmeg might help people with diabetes.

How Do You Use Nutmeg?
If you like nutmeg, it’s best to buy a nutmeg kernel, along with a nutmeg grater (or a rasp-style grater), to grate your own fresh nutmeg. One whole nutmeg yields about 2–3 teaspoons of ground nutmeg. You can test the freshness of your nutmeg kernel by pricking it with a pin. If it’s fresh, a drop of oil should seep out.

As with most ground spices, ground nutmeg loses its flavor over time. Always store nutmeg (ground or whole) in a tightly closed container, away from light. The great thing about nutmeg is that it can be used in savory dishes, such as:

  • Pumpkin and squash soup
  • Greens (spinach, kale, swiss chard)
  • Pasta dishes
  • Cheese dishes
  • Egg dishes
  • Curries
  • Sauces

And, of course, in sweet foods, such as:

  • Pumpkin pie
  • Spice cake
  • Custard
  • Muffins

You might also try a sprinkle of nutmeg on your morning coffee or latte, on eggnog, or in mulled wine, for example. And if you have trouble sleeping, a mug of warm milk with a pinch of nutmeg may help you relax. Remember that a little pinch goes a long way! In general, though, it’s probably wise not to use nutmeg for purposes other than flavoring your food.

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