Cinnamon has been used for centuries both as a culinary spice and for medicinal and other purposes. The ancient Egyptians included cinnamon in their embalming mixture. Moses combined cassia (cinnamon) and other spices with olive oil to anoint the tabernacle and its furnishings.
The name cinnamon is derived from a Greek word meaning sweet wood. It’s made from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree—an evergreen of the Laurel family. The rolled bark is allowed to dry, forming a scroll or quill. The quills are then cut into two- to three-inch sticks or ground into powder. The ground cinnamon has a stronger flavor than the sticks and can stay fresh for six months, while the scrolls last longer. Both should be stored in a cool, dark, and dry place.
There are two main varieties of cinnamon: Cinnamomum verum (true or Ceylon cinnamon) grown in Sri Lanka and southern India; and Cinnamomum aromaticum (also called cassia), which is grown in China, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
True cinnamon boasts a yellowish-brown color and tends to produce a finer powder than cassia, which is grayish-brown. The cinnamon from Sri Lanka—preferred by Europeans—is milder and sweeter in flavor and costs more. Cassia is the product of choice in the United States. True cinnamon may be blended with cassia.
A Common Flavor
Cinnamon finds use as a flavoring agent in soft drinks, teas, and bakery products such as cereals, granola bars, puddings, pastries, cakes, pies, and doughnuts. It’s often added to oatmeal, toast, candy, hot chocolate, tea or coffee, and chewing gums. The herb is a common ingredient in many Indian curries, as well as in various medicinal formulas to improve their taste and aroma. Cinnamon also adds scents in the perfume industry.
Ancient health practitioners such as Dioscorides and Galen utilized the medical properties of cinnamon in their various treatments. In medieval times, cinnamon helped treat sore throats and coughs and through the centuries has been used to alleviate indigestion, stomach cramps, intestinal spasms, nausea, flatulence; improve the appetite; and treat diarrhea.
In folk medicine, it was used for treating rheumatism and other inflammations. Its mild anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and anticlotting properties are believed to be due to its content of cinnamaldehyde. Cinnamon extracts fight Candida albican—the fungus responsible for vaginal yeast infection—and Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium responsible for stomach ulcers. The antimicrobial properties of cinnamon are thought to be due to eugenol and a derivative of cinnamaldehyde.
Cinnamon extracts inhibit the growth of cultured tumor cells. This effect may be due to the presence of procyanidins and eugenol in the bark. It’s also useful as a food preservative to inhibit the growth of common food-borne bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli.
Blood Sugar Levels Modified
In Korea and China, cinnamon has been used as a traditional herb for treating people with diabetes. While researchers were investigating the effect of various foods on blood sugar levels, they found that apple pie did not produce the expected rise in blood sugar levels. The cinnamon content of the pie provided the explanation.
Cinnamon contains some water-soluble polyphenolic polymers derived from the antioxidant catechins. These compounds increase insulin sensitivity by enhancing insulin receptor function and increase glucose uptake. A study involving 60 men and women—average age 52 years—who had Type 2 diabetes, were given 1⁄2 teaspoon of cinnamon a day for six weeks. They showed a 25 percent decrease in fasting blood glucose levels, a 12 percent drop in blood cholesterol levels, and a 30 percent drop in blood triglyceride levels.
Higher dosages produced more rapid improvements, but the larger amounts did not enhance the overall effectiveness over time.
In another trial, 22 adults with prediabetes were given 500 milligrams of a water-soluble cinnamon extract daily for 12 weeks. Without any changes in diet or physical activity, the majority of people experienced about a 10 percent drop in fasting blood sugar without blood lipid changes. Different cinnamon species may generate different results.
The herb is also a good source of chromium, an essential trace mineral that augments the action of insulin.
The distinctive odor and flavor of cinnamon is due to cinnamaldehyde, the major oily constituent of cinnamon bark. Since this can be toxic in large doses, a regular use of substantial amounts of ground cinnamon may prove unsafe. This problem can be avoided by using a water-soluble cinnamon extract in which the active polyphenolic compounds are retained but the oil constituents have been removed.
Cinnamon has been granted GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status as a food additive by the FDA and is not restricted as some other food additives have been. Pregnant women are advised to avoid taking cinnamon oil or large doses of the bark, since high doses can induce abortion.
There have been reports of contact sensitivity to cinnamon oil and bark, and to cinnamaldehyde in toothpaste and perfumes. Lip swelling and oral lesions are reported among frequent users of cinnamon-flavored chewing gums.
Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.