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Cinnamon: Simple, Homey...and Mighty

Health Benefits of Cinnamon

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Updated June 02, 2014

Trio of Cinnamon sticks
Gary Moss Photography/Photodisc/Getty Images
Updated June 02, 2014
Cinnamon…common, comforting, homey. Who would have thought it could be so good for you?

What is Cinnamon?

Cinnamon is the bark of one of a group of trees belonging to the same family. Many related species are marketed as cinnamon. "True cinnamon" is from Sri Lanka and is more delicate tasting than what is commonly sold as cinnamon in the United States, which is also called "cassia" or "Chinese cinnamon." Cassia has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. There are many other species of cinnamon, mainly from Asia and Madagascar. Cinnamon "sticks" or "quills" are rolls of dried bark, and can be grated into a powder or soaked in liquid. Most people buy cinnamon pre-ground.

Cinnamon Nutrition

Would you believe that a mere teaspoon of cinnamon contains 28 mg of calcium, almost one mg of iron, over a gram of fiber, and quite a lot of vitamins C, K, and manganese? It's true. It also contains about half a gram of "usable" (non-fiber) carbohydrate.

Health Benefits of Cinnamon

In traditional medicine, cinnamon has been used for digestive ailments such as indigestion, gas and bloating, stomach upset, and diarrhea. More recently, modern medical research has turned its eye on cinnamon and is coming up with some intriguing results. It has a mild anti-inflammatory effect. It also slows the spoiling of food (which is probably related to why it was used as an embalming agent in ancient Egypt), and has anti-fungal properties as well.

In one fun (but unpublished) study, researchers found that sniffing cinnamon resulted in improved brain function -- subjects did better on memory and attention tasks when taking whiffs of cinnamon as opposed to other odors or no odor. However, the potential health benefits of cinnamon that have received the most attention have to do with its effects on blood glucose and cholesterol.

Cinnamon May Improve Type 2 Diabetes and Insulin Resistance

This is the news that is most exciting for people who respond to low-carb diets, since most (or at least a substantial percentage) of us are probably insulin resistant or diabetic. Several studies have shown improved insulin sensitivity and blood glucose control by taking as little as ½ teaspoon of cinnamon per day. Improving insulin resistance can help in weight control as well as decreasing the risk for heart disease, so this has a lot of people interested. Although the results of preliminary studies are somewhat mixed, the majority of the research seems to be pointing in the direction of cinnamon being beneficial. Along with the improvement in blood sugar, these studies have documented improvements in triglycerides, blood pressure, and LDL cholesterol.

Adverse Reactions

In "normal uses" in cooking, cinnamon is unlikely to cause problems in non-allergic people, and up to ½ teaspoon at a time are thought to be safe. People attempting to take more as a supplement should be aware of the following: Most negative reactions are in the form of skin rashes, or irritation to the tissues of the mouth or stomach. Cinnamon has a mild anti-clotting effect in the blood, which could be beneficial. But it is conceivable that too much could cause bleeding problems, especially when combined with medications which "thin the blood," including aspirin. In traditional medicine, high doses are not given to pregnant women, due to possible stimulating effects on the uterus.

Selection and Storage of Cinnamon

Basically, you're looking to buy it fresh and keep it fresh. Most large grocery stores have a rapid turnover of cinnamon, so you don't really need to worry. Once home, it is best stored in a dark, cool, dry place. Cinnamon sticks can keep for 2 to 3 years this way, but powdered cinnamon will gradually lose its flavor, and is best used within six months. (It isn't bad for you after this time, just less fresh-tasting.) If you want to try a fun array of different cinnamons, try a specialty spice shop such as Penzeys.

Serving Suggestions for Cinnamon

In the United States, we usually think of cinnamon as a spice to be used in baking, but in many parts of the world it is used in savory dishes. My husband always rubs our Thanksgiving turkey with a blend of spices that includes cinnamon -- which means that the turkey ala king the next week also has a hint of warm spiciness -- and it is yummy. Of course, you can sprinkle cinnamon on low-carb toast, put it in your coffee, or top yogurt, cottage cheese, or ricotta with it. I like warm unsweetened soy milk with cinnamon and sweetener on a cold night. And here are some of my low-carb recipes that feature cinnamon: Sources:

Anderson, RA. "Chromium and polyphenols from cinnamon improve insulin sensitivity.." Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 67(1):48-53.Click here to read (2008).

Anderson, RAHlebowicz, J, Darwiche, G et al. "Effect of cinnamon on postprandial blood glucose, gastric emptying, and satiety in healthy subjects.." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 85(6):1552-6. (2007).

Khan, Alam, Safdar, Mahpara, et al. "Cinnamon Improves Glucose and Lipids of People With Type 2 Diabetes." Diabetes Care. 26:3215-3218, (2003).

Valero, M., Salmeron, MC. "Antibacterial activity of 11 essential oils against Bacillus cereus in tyndallized carrot broth.." International Journal of Food Microbiology. 85(1-2):73-81. (2003).

Zoladz P, Raudenbush B, Lilley S. "Cinnamon perks performance." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences, held in Sarasota, FL, April 21-25, 2004.

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