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What Is Cinnamon? A Comprehensive Guide to Using and Reaping the Health Benefits of This Popular Ancient Spice | Netchorus

Whether it’s sprinkled atop a steaming pumpkin spice latte, dropped as a curl of bark into a hot wintertime cider, or featured in an aromatic, freshly baked apple pie, cinnamon has the power to evoke a degree of nostalgia and luxury that few other spices can match.

Since ancient times, the fragrant spice has delighted palates, influenced the fate of nations, and been hailed for its supposed medicinal properties.

Considering the deep history of cinnamon, it may seem as if you’ve already learned everything there is to know about this common household ingredient. But think again! Read on to find out if you’re getting the most out of cinnamon and to learn when its use can put you at risk.

What Is Cinnamon and Where Does It Come From?

Cinnamon is an ancient spice that comes from the bark of several species of the Cinnamomum genus of evergreen trees, which belong to the laurel family. The most popular types of cinnamon are native to Sri Lanka and China, though cinnamon is grown throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. (1,2,3)

In antiquity, cinnamon was prized as much for its sweet, sharp, and sensuous fragrance as it was for its taste. The ancient Egyptians used cinnamon along with myrrh to embalm the dead, and the Romans burned it on funeral pyres. It was used in religious ceremonies by the ancient Hebrews and is mentioned in the Bible as an ingredient in the preparation of a holy anointing oil. (4)

During the Middle Ages in Europe, cinnamon was a status symbol ingredient in cuisine enjoyed by the elite, brought west from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) by Arab traders. The Portuguese took over the cinnamon trade in Ceylon during the 15th century, and centuries of fighting over the spice ensued between them, the Ceylonese, and Dutch and British colonizers. In time, cultivation of the sought-after spice spread across the globe. Today, cinnamon is more likely to evoke feelings of comfort rather than bloodlust.

What Are the Different Types of Cinnamon?

The cinnamon you have in your kitchen cabinet is most likely to be Cinnamomum cassia, which is native to China and the most common type sold in the United States and Canada. Cinnamomum verum, also known as true cinnamon or Ceylon cinnamon, comes primarily from Sri Lanka. It is more delicately flavored than cassia and more highly prized, though less widely used. Other commercially available types of cinnamon include Cinnamomum burmannii (also called Indonesian cinnamon) and Cinnamomum loureiroi (also known as Vietnamese cinnamon). Many lesser-known species of the cinnamon tree exist, too. (1,2)

What’s in Cinnamon Exactly? A Look at the Nutrition Facts of the Spice

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these are the nutrition facts for 1 teaspoon (tsp) of ground cinnamon: (7)

Calories: 6
Protein: 0 grams (g)
Carbohydrates: 2 g
Dietary fiber: 1 g (4 percent daily value, or DV)
Total sugars: 0 g
Total fat: 0 g
Cholesterol: 0 milligrams (mg)
Sodium: 0 mg
Calcium: 26 mg (2.6 percent DV)
Potassium: 11 mg (0.23 percent DV)
Magnesium: 2 mg (0.5 percent DV)
Phosphorus: 2 mg (0.2 percent DV)
Vitamin K: 1 microgram (1.22 percent DV)
Vitamin A: 8 international units (0.16 percent DV)

What Are the Possible Health Benefits of Cinnamon?

Cinnamon has quite the reputation as a healing agent. The spice has been credited with antibacterial, antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. People use it to treat bug bites, ease the discomfort of urinary tract infections, and soothe rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, as well as a broad spectrum of other maladies. Studies have explored the possibility that cinnamon can help with managing blood sugar, improving high cholesterol, fighting dementia, and even treating multiple sclerosis. But the research so far is preliminary. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), “Studies done in people don’t support using cinnamon for any health condition.” (2,8,9,10)

To counter one of the most widely circulated claims — that cinnamon supplements help people with diabetes control their blood sugar — the agency points to a 2012 systematic review of 10 randomized, controlled clinical trials in people with type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. The review concluded that cinnamon supplements weren’t shown to help reduce levels of glycosylated hemoglobin A1C (a long-term measure of glucose control), serum insulin, or postprandial glucose (measured two hours after eating a meal).

Still, a subsequent review and analysis of 10 randomized clinical trials involving cinnamon that was published in the Annals of Family Medicine saw a decrease in levels of fasting plasma glucose, total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, as well as an increase in HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels in those with type 2 diabetes. This review did agree with the previous one that A1C levels were unaffected by cinnamon use. Though this news is slightly encouraging, it certainly isn’t enough to justify using cinnamon instead of diabetes or cholesterol treatments as directed by your healthcare provider. (12)

Can Cinnamon Help With Weight Loss? What the Science Suggests About the Claim

Spices like cinnamon can be flavorful godsends for dieters adjusting to cuisine that’s lower in sugar or salt than they are accustomed to. But there’s little evidence that cinnamon actually has medical properties that aid weight loss.

A 2017 study published in the journal Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental suggested that cinnamaldehyde, a chemical compound that helps give cinnamon its flavor, may help human and mouse fat cells burn energy. Yet the fat cells — taken through liposuction — were treated with the compound after being removed from the body. And it’s not clear that you could get a similar effect by ingesting cinnamon. It’s better to focus on consuming fewer calories than you burn through a well-balanced diet and physical activity rather than rely on the supposedly magical properties of any particular ingredient in order to shed pounds.

What Are the Side Effects and Health Risks Associated With Cinnamon?

Anyone who remembers the so-called cinnamon challenge of a few years back — which involved downing a spoonful of ground cinnamon without any liquid to chase it down — knows that consuming the spice in a reckless manner can result in choking, vomiting, and trouble breathing. American poison control centers saw a spike in calls involving cinnamon when the viral video challenge was at its height in 2012. In 2015, a 4-year-old Kentucky boy accidentally choked to death on cinnamon powder. (14,15)

Yet there is another health risk to note about cinnamon, involving the fragrant compound coumarin, which is used in some countries as a vanilla substitute. At high levels — much higher than the average person ingests — coumarin can lead to liver damage in sensitive individuals. The compound is found in trace amounts of Ceylon cinnamon plants but in significantly higher levels in cassia cinnamon. (16)

According to the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cassia powder contains 2,100 to 4,400 mg of coumarin, which translates to roughly 6 to 12 mg of coumarin in 1 tsp. Given the liberal use of cassia cinnamon in baked goods in Europe, the European Food Safety Authority has recommended a tolerable daily intake of 0.1 mg of coumarin per kilogram of body weight, the amount in roughly 1 tsp of cassia cinnamon per day. The United States has no such guideline, but it has banned the use of coumarin as a food additive.

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