Introducing Nutmeg: A Little History, A Little Chemistry

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introducing nutmeg
Grate nutmeg just before use.

Once, at the grocery store with my wife, the checkout girl picked up a small green bundle and rang it up. She wondered what it was. We informed her, it was asparagus. It shocked the two of us that anyone could fail to know what asparagus was.

Introducing Nutmeg

As with asparagus, I wonder how many people don’t know what nutmeg is? Since it is used in sweets, perhaps only a small number. But how many people, if asked what nutmeg is, would say “It is a can of spice you buy at the store.”

The word nutmeg refers to a spice. But it also refers to the seed that is grated to produce the spice. Nutmeg grows on trees (Myristica fragrans). Originally, if you wanted nutmeg, you had to visit the Banda Islands, its sole location.

Did you know: more than nutmeg comes from a nutmeg tree…


There is also mace. Now maybe you knew where nutmeg comes from, but it’s an even chance you don’t know where mace comes from. Mace is the thin, almost web-like red layer that surrounds the nutmeg seed. It is dried and processed separately from nutmeg. It, too, can be found on your grocer’s shelves. It is used in pies and other sweets.

introducing nutmeg
A nutmeg fruit with its mace-covered seed.

Both nutmeg and mace, used in foods as a spice make an entirely marvelous addition to the culinary world. But of course, some will misuse it. Are there chemicals within the nutmeg that can harm us if consumed in large excess?

Introducing Nutmeg: A Little Chemistry

Columbia University’s Go Ask Alice informs us, “Nutmeg’s psychotropic and hallucinogenic properties are believed to come from oils like myristicin…”

introducing nutmeg

Notice the similarity between myristicin and safrole. Safrole is a component of sassafras oil. The difference is the lone methoxy group, (–OCH3).

introducing nutmeg

These two compounds are included in a group of compounds called phenylpropenoids. These compounds may serve as natural insecticides.

There are a number of natural and fragrant substances included among the phenylpropenoids. One interesting example is the sweetbay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana.

Introducing Nutmeg: A Little History

So what was the original source of the nutmeg tree and its spices? And why is it of historical interest? You can be the judge of that. Enjoy this 3-minute long National Geographic video entitled: The Nutmeg Wars…

Note: You might also enjoy Vanilla and Vanillin: What’s the Difference?


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