What is it and where does it come from?
Since cinnamon is one of my favourite spices (for several reasons), I felt compelled to share the pros and cons of using this ancient spice.
It has a warmth to it along with a pleasant flavour, which has made it popular in cooking and baking. Cinnamon has a rich history and has been used worldwide for centuries. It is considered to be one of the first traded spices (as currency) in the ancient world.
There are many biblical references to kannamon (cinnamon in Hebrew) too. During that time, it was considered so valuable that it had the same worth as gold and ivory. It was also used as part of the ancient Egyptians embalming rituals and physicians from the middle ages used it as a treatment for colds and throat ailments.
Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of tropical, evergreen trees called Cinnamomum trees. To harvest this spice, it is peeled off and left in the sun to dry. As it dries, it curls up into rolls known as cinnamon sticks, which can then be ground into a powder for easy use.
The two main types of cinnamon are Ceylon and Cassia. Cassia originated in southern China – several subspecies are now grown across eastern and southern Asia. Cassia has a dark brown-red colour with thicker sticks and a rougher texture. It has a strong and spicy flavour. Most grocery stores stock Cassia, which is the cheaper of the two.
Ceylon is less common and a lot more expensive. It is primarily grown in Sri Lanka and the southern parts of India. Ceylon has a tan-brown colour and contains several tight sticks which have softer layers. It has a more delicate and mildly sweet flavour.
Cassia contains about 250 times the amount of coumarin, a naturally occurring compound in several plant species. Coumarin can be harmful in large quantities. It’s easy to exceed the upper limit for coumarin if you eat a lot of Cassia cinnamon or consume a supplement that contains it. Just 1 – 2 teaspoons could result in someone exceeding the daily limit. If you do eat a lot of cinnamon or take a supplement containing it, be sure to choose Ceylon over Cassia, which is better quality and safer, thus reducing your risk of harmful side effects.
I only use Ceylon cinnamon – to make one of my favourite comfort drinks, I add about ½ teaspoon of cinnamon and combine it with ¼ teaspoon of turmeric, ¼ teaspoon of powdered ginger, a pinch of nutmeg, and ½ teaspoon of honey and stir it into warm milk. Since it has a calming effect on me, I usually drink it before going to sleep at night.
So, why is it good for you?
It contains a substance high in medicinal properties
The oily part of cinnamon is high in the compound known as cinnamaldehyde. It is this oily part of cinnamon that gives it such a distinct aroma and flavour. Scientists have found that this compound is responsible for most of cinnamon’s powerful health effects.
Packed with antioxidants with anti-inflammatory effects
Cinnamon contains large amounts of polyphenol antioxidants. Polyphenols are micronutrients packed with antioxidants and contained in certain plant-based foods. They help protect the body from disease. The antioxidants found in cinnamon also have anti-inflammatory effects.
Cinnamon trumped 26 other spices in a comparative study to evaluate the antioxidant activity of each. It even outranked superfoods such as garlic and oregano. It is powerful enough to be used as a natural food preservative.
Contains anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal properties
Cinnamaldehyde (essential oil in the bark) has anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal properties. Because of its medicinal and soothing properties, cinnamon is often used in Chinese herbal medicine to treat fever, diarrhoea, and menstrual problems.
It may improve digestion
Cinnamon, along with a few other spices, has prebiotic properties that encourage the growth of good bacteria and aid in suppressing the growth of bad bacteria. Incorporating some of these beneficial spices in your diet may improve your gut health.
In Ayurvedic medicine, cinnamon bark oil is used to treat flatulence and digestive imbalance. Cinnamon extract has also been used for years in Eastern and Western medicine to alleviate gastrointestinal problems. American 19th-century physicians used cinnamon to treat patients suffering from stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, colic, and uterine problems.
Linked to reduced risk of heart disease
The world’s most common cause of premature death is heart disease. Cinnamon has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. Findings show that cinnamon aids in reducing the bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides while the good HDL cholesterol stays stable or increases. In people suffering from type 2 diabetes, an amount of about ½ a teaspoon daily has had positive effects on their blood markers.
Beneficial effects on neurodegenerative diseases
Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are two of the most common types of neurodegenerative diseases. These diseases are characterised by a progressive loss of the function or structure of brain cells. Researchers have found that there are two compounds in cinnamon that appear to inhibit the accumulation of a protein called tau in the brain – one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.
Although further human studies are necessary, a study in mice with Parkinson’s disease found that cinnamon consumption helped to protect neurons. It also normalised neurotransmitter levels and improved motor function.
May aid in protecting against cancer
Animal and test-tube studies suggest that cinnamon may have protective effects against cancer. Cinnamon appears to be toxic to cancer cells resulting in cell death. Its protective action reduces cancer cell growth. It also reduces the formation of blood vessels in tumours.
“A study conducted on Swiss albino mice with colon cancer found that cinnamon is a potent activator of detoxifying enzymes in the colon, protecting against further cancer growth. These findings were supported by test-tube experiments, which showed that cinnamon activates protective antioxidant responses in human colon cells.”
Controlled studies are required to establish whether cinnamon has any effect on living humans.
Assists in fighting bacterial and fungal infections
Cinnamaldehyde has antifungal and antibacterial properties which may reduce certain infections. It is also supportive in fighting tooth decay and bad breath – obviously, the reason why there are so many kinds of toothpaste, mouthwashes, and chewing gums containing cinnamon.
Aids in fighting HIV
HIV is a virus that slowly destroys your immune system, which, if left untreated, can eventually lead to AIDS. It is suggested that cinnamon extracted from the Cassia varieties may assist in fighting HIV‑1, which is the most common strain of HIV in humans. While examining HIV-infected cells, scientists found that cinnamon was the most beneficial treatment out of 69 medicinal plants studied. However, since these findings were from test-tube studies, human trials are required to confirm these effects.
Are there any negative effects of consuming cinnamon?
It may cause liver damage
Since Cassia cinnamon is high in coumarin, eating too much thereof may result in liver toxicity and damage. It is important to be cautious when taking supplements containing Cassia cinnamon as certain supplements provide a higher dose than you would get from diet alone.
It may trigger mouth sores
Cinnamaldehyde could potentially trigger an allergic reaction if eaten in large doses which may cause symptoms such as mouth sores, tongue or gum swelling, a burning or itching sensation, or white patches in the mouth. It is often used as a flavouring agent in hygiene products, foods, drinks, and candles. However, when consuming small amounts of cinnamon, this doesn’t appear to cause any bad reaction. Our saliva also prevents chemicals from hanging around our mouths for long.
It seems that the symptoms caused by having too much cinnamaldehyde only affects individuals who are allergic to this essential oil. Mouth sores seem to occur mainly in people who regularly use too much cinnamon oil and cinnamon-flavoured chewing gum as these products usually contain higher amounts of cinnamaldehyde.
May increase the risk of certain cancers
Several animal studies have revealed that consuming too much coumarin may increase one’s risk of certain cancers, such as cancerous tumours developing in the lungs, liver, and kidneys. This was found to be the case in studies conducted on rodents. It is unclear how coumarin causes tumours, although several scientists believe that coumarin may result in DNA damage over time which then increases one’s risk of cancer.
Further human studies are required to establish whether the same link between cancer and coumarin applies to humans.
It could adversely interact with some medications
As with most things in life, moderation is key. Consuming small amounts of cinnamon appears to be safe with most medications. However, if you’re taking medication for heart disease, liver disease, or diabetes, it is important not to take too much cinnamon as it may have an adverse interaction with those particular medications by either enhancing their effects or intensifying their side effects.
For example, if you’re taking medication for diabetes, cinnamon could enhance the effect thereof and result in your blood sugar falling too low causing common symptoms of low blood sugar such as tiredness, dizziness, and fainting.
It may trigger breathing issues
Ground cinnamon has a fine texture that can easily be inhaled, resulting in severe coughing, gagging, and difficulty catching your breath. I’ve witnessed this happening – a friend offered to make me a beverage containing cinnamon. As he opened the new bag of Ceylon cinnamon, a cloud of cinnamon “dust” burst out and he accidentally inhaled it. This triggered a gagging and choking fit – it took about 30 minutes before he could breathe normally again. Days later he reported that his throat still felt irritated.
Consuming dry cinnamon may be dangerous, especially if it forms a clump and clogs your airways. This fine powder seems harmless, but accidentally inhaling cinnamon can seriously damage your lungs by causing inflammation which can lead to an infection. The lungs cannot break down the fibres in cinnamon. Studies have found that it may accumulate in your lungs causing aspiration pneumonia, which if left untreated can permanently scar or possibly collapse your lungs. The cinnamaldehyde can also result in considerable irritation, burning, itching, and discomfort of the affected nasal tissue and nostrils. It is also a throat irritant that can trigger further breathing problems.
If you suffer from asthma or other medical conditions that affect your breathing, be especially careful of accidentally inhaling this spice.
How long does cinnamon last?
Whole cinnamon can last for about a year but ground cinnamon starts to lose its flavour after a couple of months. It is best to store cinnamon in an airtight container in a dark place. The fresher this spice is, the better. Keep an eye on the use-by dates.
This delicious spice has been prized for its healing properties for thousands of years and modern science has confirmed what people have known for centuries.
So why not add cinnamon to your diet – you may find it beneficial to your health. But remember not to consume large amounts, especially of the Cassia variety. Rather stick to smaller amounts of Ceylon cinnamon. Try adding it to milk for a soothing beverage, or fruit, desserts, breads, and other foods for a daily health boost. To maximise its medicinal value and health benefits, make sure you consume fresh cinnamon.
If you’d like to select a variety of cinnamon products, you may find what you’re looking for here. For my international readers, you can find a great selection here. Or, you may prefer your ingredients put together by a professional chef, with the hope that one of the delicious curry meals has cinnamon added. If so, simply order here.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only. No material contained herein is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment before undertaking a new health care regime, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read.
Authored by Delilah Nosworthy