Although available throughout the year, the fragrant, sweet and warm taste of cinnamon is a perfect spice to use during the winter months.
Cinnamon has a long history both as a spice and as a medicine. It is the brown bark of the cinnamon tree, which is available in its dried tubular form known as a quill or as ground powder. The two varieties of cinnamon, Chinese and Ceylon, have similar flavor, however the cinnamon from Ceylon is slightly sweeter, more refined and more difficult to find in local markets.
Cinnamon’s unique healing abilities come from three basic types of components in the essential oils found in its bark. These oils contain active components called cinnamaldehyde, cinnamyl acetate, and cinnamyl alcohol, plus a wide range of other volatile substances.
Cinnamaldehyde (also called cinnamic aldehyde) has been well-researched for its effects on blood platelets. Platelets are constituents of blood that are meant to clump together under emergency circumstances (like physical injury) as a way to stop bleeding, but under normal circumstances, they can make blood flow inadequate if they clump together too much. The cinnaldehyde in cinnamon helps prevent unwanted clumping of blood platelets. (The way it accomplishes this health-protective act is by inhibiting the release of an inflammatory fatty acid called arachidonic acid from platelet membranes and reducing the formation of an inflammatory messaging molecule called thromboxane A2.) Cinnamon’s ability to lower the release of arachidonic acid from cell membranes also puts it in the category of an “anti-inflammatory” food that can be helpful in lessening inflammation.
Cinnamon’s essential oils also qualify it as an “anti-microbial” food, and cinnamon has been studied for its ability to help stop the growth of bacteria as well as fungi, including the commonly problematic yeast Candida. In laboratory tests, growth of yeasts that were resistant to the commonly used anti-fungal medication fluconazole was often (though not always) stopped by cinnamon extracts.
Cinnamon’s antimicrobial properties are so effective that recent research demonstrates this spice can be used as an alternative to traditional food preservatives. In a study, published in the August 2003 issue of the International Journal of Food Microbiology, the addition of just a few drops of cinnamon essential oil to 100 ml (approximately 3 ounces) of carrot broth, which was then refrigerated, inhibited the growth of the foodborne pathogenic Bacillus cereus for at least 60 days. When the broth was refrigerated without the addition of cinnamon oil, the pathogenic B. cereus flourished despite the cold temperature. In addition, researchers noted that the addition of cinnamon not only acted as an effective preservative but improved the flavor of the broth.
Blood Sugar Control
Seasoning a high carb food with cinnamon can help lessen its impact on your blood sugar levels. Cinnamon slows the rate at which the stomach empties after meals, reducing the rise in blood sugar after eating. Researchers measured how quickly the stomach emptied after 14 healthy subjects ate 300 grams (1.2 cups) of rice pudding alone or seasoned with 6 grams (1.2 teaspoons) of cinnamon. Adding cinnamon to the rice pudding lowered the gastric emptying rate from 37% to 34.5% and significantly lessened the rise in blood sugar levels after eating. Am J Clin Nutr. 2 007 Jun;85(6):1552-6.
Cinnamon may also significantly help people with type 2 diabetes improve their ability to respond to insulin, thus normalizing their blood sugar levels. Both test tube and animal studies have shown that compounds in cinnamon not only stimulate insulin receptors, but also inhibit an enzyme that inactivates them, thus significantly increasing cells’ ability to use glucose. Studies to confirm cinnamon’s beneficial actions in humans are currently underway with the most recent report coming from researchers from the US Agricultural Research Service, who have shown that less than half a teaspoon per day of cinnamon reduces blood sugar levels in persons with type 2 diabetes. Their study included 60 Pakistani volunteers with type 2 diabetes who were not taking insulin. Subjects were divided into six groups. For 40 days, groups 1, 2 and 3 were given 1, 3, or 6 grams per day of cinnamon while groups 4, 5 and 6 received placebo capsules. Even the lowest amount of cinnamon, 1 gram per day (approximately 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon), produced an approximately 20% drop in blood sugar; cholesterol and triglycerides were lowered as well. When daily cinnamon was stopped, blood sugar levels began to increase.
Test tube, animal and human studies have all recently investigated cinnamon’s ability to improve insulin activity, and thus our cells’ ability to absorb and use glucose from the blood.
On going in vitro or test tube research conducted by Richard Anderson and his colleagues at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center is providing new understanding of the mechanisms through which cinnamon enhances insulin activity. In their latest paper, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Anderson et al. characterize the insulin-enhancing complexes in cinnamon—a collection of catechin/epicatechin oligomers that increase the body’s insulin-dependent ability to use glucose roughly 20-fold. Some scientists had been concerned about potentially toxic effects of regularly consuming cinnamon. This new research shows that the potentially toxic compounds in cinnamon bark are found primarily in the lipid (fat) soluble fractions and are present only at very low levels in water soluble cinnamon extracts, which are the ones with the insulin-enhancing compounds.
A recent animal study demonstrating cinnamon’s beneficial effects on insulin activity appeared in the December 2003 issue of Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice. In this study, when rats were given a daily dose of cinnamon (300 mg per kilogram of body weight) for a 3 week period, their skeletal muscle was able to absorb 17% more blood sugar per minute compared to that of control rats, which had not received cinnamon, an increase researchers attributed to cinnamon’s enhancement of the muscle cells’ insulin-signaling pathway.
In humans with type 2 diabetes, consuming as little as 1 gram of cinnamon per day was found to reduce blood sugar, triglycerides, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and total cholesterol, in a study published in the December 2003 issue of Diabetes Care. The placebo-controlled study evaluated 60 people with type 2 diabetes (30 men and 30 women ranging in age from 44 to 58 years) who were divided into 6 groups. Groups 1, 2, and 3 were given 1, 3, or 6 grams of cinnamon daily, while groups 4, 5, and 6 received 1, 3 or 6 grams of placebo. After 40 days, all three levels of cinnamon reduced blood sugar levels by 18-29%, triglycerides 23-30%, LDL cholesterol 7-27%, and total cholesterol 12-26%, while no significant changes were seen in those groups receiving placebo. The researchers’ conclusion: including cinnamon in the diet of people with type 2 diabetes will reduce risk factors associated with diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
By enhancing insulin signaling, cinnamon can prevent insulin resistance even in animals fed a high-fructose diet! A study published in Hormone Metabolism Research showed that when rats fed a high-fructose diet were also given cinnamon extract, their ability to respond to and utilize glucose (blood sugar) was improved so much that it was the same as that of rats on a normal (control) diet.
Cinnamon is so powerful an antioxidant that, when compared to six other antioxidant spices (anise, ginger, licorice, mint, nutmeg and vanilla) and the chemical food preservatives (BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), and propyl gallate), cinnamon prevented oxidation more effectively than all the other spices (except mint) and the chemical antioxidants.
Cinnamon’s Scent Boosts Brain Function
Not only does consuming cinnamon improve the body’s ability to utilize blood sugar, but just smelling the wonderful odor of this sweet spice boosts brain activity!
Research led by Dr. P. Zoladz and presented April 24, 2004, at the annual meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences, in Sarasota, FL, found that chewing cinnamon flavored gum or just smelling cinnamon enhanced study participants’ cognitive processing. Specifically, cinnamon improved participants’ scores on tasks related to attentional processes, virtual recognition memory, working memory, and visual-motor speed while working on a computer-based program. Participants were exposed to four odorant conditions: no odor, peppermint odor, jasmine, and cinnamon, with cinnamon emerging the clear winner in producing positive effects on brain function. Encouraged by the results of these studies, researchers will be evaluating cinnamon”s potential for enhancing cognition in the elderly, individuals with test-anxiety, and possibly even patients with diseases that lead to cognitive decline.
Calcium and Fiber Improve Colon Health and Protect Against Heart Disease
In addition to its unique essential oils, cinnamon is an excellent source of fiber and the trace mineral manganese while also a very good source of calcium. The combination of calcium and fiber in cinnamon is important and can be helpful for the prevention of several different conditions. Both calcium and fiber can bind to bile salts and help remove them from the body. By removing bile, fiber helps to prevent the damage that certain bile salts can cause to colon cells, thereby reducing the risk of colon cancer. In addition, when bile is removed by fiber, the body must break down cholesterol in order to make new bile. This process can help to lower high cholesterol levels, which can be helpful in preventing atherosclerosis and heart disease. For sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome, the fiber in cinnamon may also provide relief from constipation or diarrhea.
A Traditional Warming Remedy
In addition to the active components in its essential oils and its nutrient composition, cinnamon has also been valued in energy-based medical systems, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, for its warming qualities. In these traditions, cinnamon has been used to provide relief when faced with the onset of a cold or flu, especially when mixed in a tea with some fresh ginger.
Cinnamon is the brown bark of the cinnamon tree, which when dried, rolls into a tubular form known as a quill. Cinnamon is available in either its whole quill form (cinnamon sticks) or as ground powder.
While there are approximately one hundred varieties of Cinnamonum verum (the scientific name for cinnamon), Cinnamonum zeylanicum (Ceylon cinnamon) and Cinnamomun aromaticum (Chinese cinnamon) are the leading varieties consumed. Ceylon cinnamon is also referred to as “true cinnamon”, while the Chinese variety is known as “cassia”. While both are relatively similar in characteristics and both feature a fragrant, sweet and warm taste, the flavor of the Ceylon variety is more refined and subtle. Ceylon cinnamon is more rare in North America than the cassia, the less expensive variety, which is the most popular in the United States.
Cinnamon is one of the oldest spices known. It was mentioned in the Bible and was used in ancient Egypt not only as a beverage flavoring and medicine, but also as an embalming agent. It was so highly treasured that it was considered more precious than gold. Around this time, cinnamon also received much attention in China, which is reflected in its mention in one of the earliest books on Chinese botanical medicine, dated around 2,700 B.C.
Cinnamon’s popularity continued throughout history. It became one of the most relied upon spices in Medieval Europe. Due to its demand, cinnamon became one of the first commodities traded regularly between the Near East and Europe. Ceylon cinnamon is produced in Sri Lanka, India, Madagascar, Brazil and the Caribbean, while cassia is mainly produced in China, Vietnam and Indonesia.
How to Select and Store
Cinnamon is available in either stick or powder form. While the sticks can be stored for longer, the ground powder has a stronger flavor. If possible, smell the cinnamon to make sure that it has a sweet smell, a characteristic reflecting that it is fresh.
Oftentimes, both Ceylon cinnamon and Chinese cinnamon (cassia) are labeled as cinnamon. If you want to find the sweeter, more refined tasting Ceylon variety, you may need to shop in either a local spice store or ethnic market since this variety is generally less available. Just like with other dried spices, try to select organically grown cinnamon since this will give you more assurance that it has not been irradiated (among other potential adverse effects, irradiating cinnamon may lead to a significant decrease in its vitamin C and carotenoid content.)
Cinnamon should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark and dry place. Ground cinnamon will keep for about six months, while cinnamon sticks will stay fresh for about one year stored this way. Alternatively, you can extend their shelf life by storing them in the refrigerator. To check to see if it is still fresh, smell the cinnamon. If it does not smell sweet, it is no longer fresh and should be discarded.
How to Enjoy
A Few Quick Serving Ideas
- Enjoy one of the favorite kids’ classics—cinnamon toast—with a healthy twist. Drizzle flax seed oil onto toast and then sprinkle with cinnamon and honey.
- Simmer cinnamon sticks with milk and honey for a deliciously warming beverage.
- Adding ground cinnamon to black beans to be used in burritos or nachos will give them a uniquely delicious taste.
- Sauté lamb with eggplant, raisins and cinnamon sticks to create a Middle Eastern inspired meal.
- Add ground cinnamon when preparing curries.
Cinnamon is not a commonly allergenic food and is not known to contain measurable amounts of oxalate or purines. While the level of naturally occurring coumarins in Ceylon cinnamon appears to be very small and lower than the amount that could cause health risks, the level of naturally occurring coumarins in the cassia cinnamon appears to be higher and may pose a risk to some individuals if consumed in substantial amounts on a regular basis.
Cinnamon is an excellent source of manganese and fiber and a very good source of calcium.