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What’s That in Your Pumpkin Pie?

Isn’t it the dose that makes the poison? Paracelsus, the Swiss physician, born in the late 1400s, is credited with saying, “What is there that is not poison? All things are poison, and nothing is without poison. Solely the dose determines that a thing is not poison.” This reminds me that several of the ingredients we use in cooking tingle our taste buds but are considered toxic if ingested in high doses. Recognize these two from your pumpkin pie recipe? Nutmeg and clove.



Nutmeg comes from the Myristica fragrans tree. Originally native to the Maluku Islands of Indonesia (Spice Islands), nutmeg was imported to Europe in the mid-12th century. An irregularly shaped tree with a height of about ten meters (33 feet), its shiny evergreen leaves are fragrant when crushed. The fruit, about the size of an apricot, contains a seed kernel, nutmeg, while the aromatic scarlet lacy aril is the source of mace (aril is the extra seed covering, usually colorful, that develops after fertilization). Today, Indonesia is still the top producer of nutmeg, but it’s also cultivated in some Caribbean islands, Malaysia, and India, among other locations.


Two to four tablespoons of ground nutmeg, or one to three crushed seeds, are enough to produce toxicity. Nutmeg intoxication is accidental, or intentional by those seeking to exploit the “nutmeg high.” The oil myristicin (methoxysafrole), derived from nutmeg, is considered the major substance that produces toxicity, particularly the hallucinogenic properties. Central nervous system effects include giddiness, a sense of detachment, impending doom, hallucinations, and delusions. Individuals who have ingested large quantities may experience an increased heart rate, dry mouth, seizures, hypertension and gastrointestinal disturbances, such as abdominal pain and vomiting.


Cloves, the product of another evergreen tree, Syzygium aromaticum, are also native to the Maluku Islands and are the source of eugenol (4-allyl-2-methoxyphenol). The tree has been cultivated since about 200 B.C. The word clove is derived from the Latin “clavus,” meaning nail, a descriptive term for the unopened aromatic nail-shaped flower buds. Ingestion of large amounts of the oil produces central nervous system depression and potential liver toxicity, particularly in small children. Smoking clove cigarettes has been reported to cause tracheobronchitis (an irritation of the respiratory tract) since eugenol is a derivative of phenol (carbolic acid).


The spices we’ve all come to love give pumpkin pie its recognizable warm and nutty flavor. A quarter of a teaspoon of ground nutmeg and a quarter of a teaspoon of ground cloves should do the trick. Of course, ingredients should be kept out of reach from curious little ones who may be helping with the baking. Enjoy the holiday desserts with family and friends. I’m sure Paracelsus would have liked a slice of that delicious pumpkin pie, too.

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