A pumpkin spice latte and a spooky jack'o'-lantern

Psychoactive pumpkin spice? This fall staple is spookier than it seems

Your pumpkin spice latte may be spookier than you think! 

If you thought that pumpkin was a component of pumpkin spice flavoring, you’d be wrong. Instead, it is a blend of spices including cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger, and nutmeg. There’s something slightly sinister about this mix though. Nutmeg is known to cause psychoactive effects if too much of the spice is ingested. 

Northeastern University chemistry and chemical biology professor Jude Mathews spoke with us about why nutmeg produces these types of effects. She has a background in organic chemistry and nutritional chemistry. During her time at Northeastern University, she developed a course called “The Chemistry of Food and Cooking”.  

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

What gives nutmeg its psychoactive/hallucinogenic qualities? 

Myristicin is a natural organic molecule that is found in some plants and spices. It is believed to be the active compound in nutmeg and is found in parsley, carrots, peppers, celery, and several species endemic to Asia.  It is also responsible for the distinctive flavor and aroma of Mace. Nutmeg is a commonly used spice derived from the seed of the Myristica fragrans tree. The spice is normally used in small amounts to flavor seasonal beverages and baked goods. 

When large amounts of nutmeg are ingested by humans, several toxic effects, including tachycardia, nausea, vomiting, agitation, and hallucinations, have been recorded. These effects have been attributed to myristicin, the ingredient contributing to the largest portion of the volatile oil of nutmeg. But it is also believed that myristicin works in conjunction with other components in nutmeg and other foods and spices that contain this compound. 

The compounds Myristicin and MMDA

Myristicin is metabolized in the body to 3-methoxy-4,5 methylenedioxyamphetamine, also known as MMDA. MMDA is a sympathomimetic compound (a compound that mimics the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system) with hallucinogenic properties and it is believed to be the compound associated with nutmeg’s hallucinogenic effects. 

How much nutmeg can you consume before it becomes unsafe? 

While there is not a lot of data on overdoses from nutmeg, there are a few reports of intoxications. The amount of nutmeg that led to these intoxications was between five and fifteen grams. This amount of nutmeg contains 1-2 milligrams of myristicin per kilogram. Although these intoxications may be attributed to the actions of myristicin, it is likely that other components of nutmeg may also be involved. The acute toxicity of myristicin appears to be low, however, it is estimated that ingesting 6-7 milligrams of myristicin per kilogram of body weight may be enough to cause psychopharmacological effects in humans. 

Studies indicate that ingestion of five or more grams of nutmeg causes acute nutmeg poisoning, which includes giddiness, hallucinations, and feelings of depersonalization. Symptoms usually appear three to six hours after ingestion of 1-3 whole nutmegs or 5-15 grams of the grated spice. Recovery usually occurs within 24 hours. Nevertheless, duration of action may extend beyond several days and may even include death. 

Are there are other spices or foods that have psychoactive qualities like nutmeg? How do those foods affect a person’s health if consumed in quantities large enough to have an impact?

Myristicin can also be found in black pepper, anise, parsley, carrots, celery, and dill.  Even in their usual intake range, a variety of spices including vanilla, cacao, chili peppers, cloves, saffron, cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric have been described as having mild effects on mood.  The psychoactive effects of myristicin are often considered to be like those of certain hallucinogenic drugs, although they are generally milder. When ingested in large amounts, myristicin can produce a range of effects, including euphoria, hallucinations, altered perception of time and space, nausea, and gastrointestinal and cardiac problems. Unfortunately, the molecular mechanisms underlying them are unknown. Nutmeg oil is a major constituent of cola flavorings. A small amount of myristicin is present in cola drinks. Nutmeg and mace are also used as traditional medicines in Asia to treat stomach cramps, diarrhea, and rheumatism. 

It is important to note that the psychoactive effects of nutmeg are generally considered undesirable, and the consumption of large amounts of nutmeg can lead to a range of negative side effects, including nausea, dizziness, confusion, and a long-lasting “hangover.” Acutely toxic doses of myristicin can cause organ damage. In extreme cases, nutmeg toxicity can result in seizures and other serious health problems. 

What is something people don’t usually think about when it comes to the chemistry behind cooking and food?

Something people don’t usually think about when it comes to the chemistry behind cooking is the role artificial intelligence can play in the process. It can be especially useful when it comes to flavor pairing. The chemistry of flavor is an area that explores the chemical compounds responsible for various flavors and how they can be combined to create unexpected but complementary tastes. Everyone knows about classic combinations of foods, such as strawberries and chocolate, but now scientists are using algorithms to pair thousands of flavors. Who would have thought pineapple and blue cheese would pair well? They do! The pairing of strawberries and balsamic vinegar is based on the interaction between the sweetness of strawberries and the acidity of vinegar.  The methods for creating flavor pairings are used by star chefs, food technologists, sommeliers, and even parfumiers. Now chefs are going to scientists and using algorithms in search of new and innovative food pairings. 

Another fact people usually aren’t aware of is that 80% of our flavor experience is determined by our sense of smell. Taste and touch account for only 20% of the overall eating experience. Olfaction, or our sense of smell, enables us to distinguish up to 10,000 different odorant molecules associated with fragrances and aromas.  Beverages with astringency (such as black tea, beer, and red wine) do a better job countering greasy food than plain water.  An ice cream float is the perfect food pairing because it connects flavor with taste. It’s a balanced taste pairing as the creamy, oily ice cream is cut through by the acidity and astringency of root beer.  It is also an elegant flavor pairing as the compound vanillin found in ice cream compliments safrole; a flavor compound found in the sassafras root used to make root beer.

You developed a course called “The Chemistry of Food and Cooking”. Can you tell us more about this course?

I have a PhD in organic chemistry and have always loved science and math, but I am also passionate about cooking. A portion of my career has been spent in the pharmaceutical industry working in research and development. When a pharmaceutical company I worked at was sold, I had the opportunity to attend The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. I dreamed of combining science and cooking one day, and that dream came true when I began working at Northeastern in 2013 and developed a class called “The Chemistry of Food and Cooking”.  

Chemistry professor Jude Mathews

Cooking may be the oldest and most widespread application of chemistry.  Recipes may be the oldest practical result of chemical research. All food is made of chemicals, and cooking can be thought of as a series of chemical reactions in which various changes occur to some of these chemicals. In the class, we begin with some chemistry basics which are needed to help understand the many chemical reactions going on during the cooking process. We also talk about spices from around the world and the spice route.  Some subjects we discuss are taste and flavor, metabolism, emulsions, molecular gastronomy, chocolate, proteins, and much more. We end with a study of food as preventative medicine.  

There are also many in class demonstrations, including making caviar using molecular gastronomy and making ice cream with liquid nitrogen. During one taste demonstration for the class, I had students chew a berry from South Africa called the “Miracle Fruit”. This berry alters a person’s taste and causes them to perceive sour foods as sweet. Students love the demonstrations and the class.  

Is there anything else we should know about this topic?

As stated before, the molecular mechanisms of myristicin that cause adverse effects are unknown. There have been previous studies that revealed that myristicin does not bind directly to DNA or indirectly lead to DNA damage, yet its presence led to programmed cell death that is used to rid the body of cells that have been damaged beyond repair.  

Although myristicin can produce the effects I talked about earlier, it has also been studied for its potential medicinal properties and may have some antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. However, more studies need to be done to verify these findings.  

Chemistry and Chemical Biology