Little known facts about nutmeg

From Radley, an economic mystery: why do spices cost less at international stores than at the usual supermarkets? From a reader, the answer’s here.

The lesson to take away is that if you’re ever stocking up on spices, do it at an international shop. The title of his post, “Nutmeggin,” led me to think it was about something else entirely. A few months ago some friends and I got into a conversation about whether or not one could get high on nutmeg. Flatmate Julian claimed no personal experience, but did mention this article describing the alleged effects:

Possible nausea during first hour; may cause vomiting or diarrhea in isolated cases. Takes anywhere from one to five hours for effects to set in. Then expect severe cottonmouth, flushing of skin, severely bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils. Personally I compare it to a very, very heavy hash buzz. “Intense sedation”. Impaired speech and motor functions. Hallucinations uncommon in average (5-10 gm) doses. Generally followed by long, deep, almost coma-like sleep (expect 16 hours of sleep afterward) and feelings of lethargy after sleep. May cause constipation, water retention. Safrole is carcinogenic and toxic to the liver.

Or there’s this ringing endorsement:

I could by this time feel a warmth on my eyes and looked in the mirror to notice they were red and bloodshot, again a very familiar experience to a marijuana user. Nutmeg’s physical effects mimic the marijuana high, but the overall effect more strongly resembles flu.

Another acquaintance in the conversation — the only one with medical training — said this is all untrue, but later recanted. There’s only one way to find out for sure. The miracle fruit parties were fun; who’s up for a nutmeg party?

Or not.

Bonus link: Why Connecticut is known as the “Nutmeg State,” which is only slightly cooler than being known as the “Land of Steady Habits.”

Update 3/12/07: On second thought, I’m not totally happy with the rational ignorance explanation for the spice price difference. As Radley summarizes:

Americans tend to use less spice in their foods than other cultures. Therefore, we don’t comparison shop, we don’t buy in bulk, and spice companies like the behemoth McCormick can bleed us dry. Immigrants from cultures that use a lot more spices and buy them more frequently won’t put up with that. Hence, you can find that the exact same spice selling in the “American” part of the store for five times what it costs in the International section.

If that’s true, it seems like grocery store chains would find easy money in offering private label, lower cost spices. Whole Foods has its own spices, but I don’t recall seeing much from any other store. (I could be mistaken, as I don’t cook often enough to buy many spices. It’s also possible that the barriers to entry in the spice trade are prohibitive enough to prevent private labeling, though I find that hard to believe.) So why would stores let McCormick have all the profit?

Perhaps the higher cost of spices in mainstream grocery stores goes more to cover expensive rents on shelf space than to profits for the spice companies. When people buy a little jar of cumin only once a year or two, they’ve got to pay a premium to make sure it’s available when they want it. The international customers buy often enough to avoid this problem.

The explanation Radley describes is more applicable to price differences within the same store and rational ignorance probably does apply at least partially across the board. I’m just skeptical of it being the whole story for the massive difference between mainstream and international stores when there’s an alternative explanation that doesn’t require consumers acting somewhat stupidly.


2 thoughts on “Little known facts about nutmeg”

  1. Yeah, I always buy spices at the Indian market now. The big bag o’ nutmeg for $1.99 is too much to resist. Though I must say I’m not a habitual user of Maggie May…

  2. Amazingly, if I had had to guess who would first write a blog post entitled “Little known facts about nutmeg”, I would have gotten it on the second guess. I guess I should get into this cooking thing since pretty much all of my fellow bloggers seem to be (except Ben, who got married instead).

    Jeff, I’m glad to hear you’re not having affairs with (much) older women.

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