As soon as the sun sets on the last day of summer, the world seems to explode with warm fall spices. We start to see cinnamon candles, baked goods, and bundles of cinnamon sticks as decor. While pumpkin spice takes center stage, it’s not actually the pumpkin you’re after – it’s the cinnamon with other warm spices that make your chilly nights extra cozy. You may think of it as a flavor enhancer, but the health benefits of cinnamon are worth a second look,.
For most of human history, spices like cinnamon were also prized for their medicinal qualities. Turmeric was used in food and to address digestive disorders and inflammation. Chili peppers were used for pain management. Ancient healers reached for ginger for nausea and diarrhea.
These aren’t just exaggerated cases of “folk medicine” or “old wives’ tales,” either. Current research has confirmed that many common spices do indeed have medicinal properties. Cinnamon, one of the most beneficial spices is also found in nearly everyone’s kitchen.
It’s important to realize that there are multiple varieties of cinnamon.
Ceylon cinnamon, or “true cinnamon,” or cinnamomum zeylanicum. Ceylon cinnamon comes from the crumbly inner bark of the cinnamomum zeylanicum tree, and its flavor is sweet and delicate. It is light brown. You should be able to snap a stick of real cinnamon in half quite easily. If you’ve ever had old school cinnamon candies, that’s real Ceylon you’re tasting.
Cassia, or cinnamomum aromaticum. Cassia is usually sold as cinnamon in the United States. Recipes calling for cinnamon can use cassia instead without issue, but cassia has a harsher, more overpowering flavor with less sweetness and more brute force. It is a darker, redder brown. Cassia sticks are rather hardy and woody. Cassia is cheaper to produce and cheaper to buy than ceylon.
Saigon cinnamon, or cinnamomum loureiroi. Saigon cinnamon is the most prized member of the Cassia family. It has a full, complex flavor with even less sweetness. Saigon cinnamon is generally pretty expensive.
Which Type of Cinnamon Is Best?
As for the purported health benefits of cinnamon consumption, you’d think that “true cinnamon” is best. I mean, it’s the real stuff, right? A quick look across the web seems to confirm that suspicion, with most references you’ll find on message boards and herbal medicine sites imploring you to “get real Ceylon cinnamon, not that Cassia stuff.” But what’s the reality? Does “true” necessarily indicate “better”?
Well, let’s look at the possible benefits of cinnamon consumption, as well as the chemical component that appears to be responsible. Most researchers have focused on cinnamaldehyde, the organic compound that gives cinnamon its signature flavor. Hold on to your seat. We’re about to get a little technical.
Ceylon vs. Cassia Cinnamon: Health Benefits and Risks, According to Science
Here are a few health benefits of cinnamon that are backed by research.
Oral health. Rather than merely mask a person’s bad breath, cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon-flavored chewing gum actually exerts an antimicrobial effect on the tongue bacteria that cause bad breath.1
Skin cancer. In human melanomas grafted onto mice, orally-administered cinnamaldehyde impaired cancer cell proliferation, invasiveness, and tumor growth.2
Colon cancer. Cinnamaldehyde, by (derived from Cassia bark, in fact) activating a protective antioxidant effect in human epithelial colon cells, evinced potential chemoprevention against colon cancer.3
Insect control. Cinnamon oil, most of which is cinnamaldehyde, is an effective insect repellant with the ability to specifically target and kill mosquito larvae.4
Heart health and blood sugar markers. Cinnamaldehyde was shown to decrease HbA1c, total cholesterol, and triglyceride levels while increasing plasma insulin, hepatic glycogen, and HDL levels. The oral dosage used – 20mg/kg body weight – wasn’t an unrealistic amount.5
Blood glucose. Cassia may help relieve the muscular insulin resistance that occurs following a bad night’s sleep.6
Diabetes. In another study, researchers using both Cassia extract and Ceylon extract found that the Cassia was more effective in diabetic rats observed in a glucose tolerance test.7
Parasites. Remember c. elegans, those plucky roundworms whose lifespan increased with both intermittent fasting8 and glucose restriction (the glucose study’s author, Cynthia Kenyon, has even adopted a low-carb diet in light of the results),9 and which have been deemed suitable models for the study of glucose restriction in higher mammals.10 Cassia bark had a similar effect on them, too.11
Kidneys. One study showed that cinnamon oil extracted from Ceylon bark reduced early stage diabetic nephropathy, or kidney disease.12 This particular oil was high (98% by volume) in cinnamaldehyde.
Cognitive decline. An aqueous solution of Ceylon cinnamon bark inhibited two common hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease: tau aggregation and filament formation. Researchers isolated an A-linked proanthocyanidin (a type of polyphenol) and determined it handled the lion’s share of tau aggregation inhibition, with cinnamaldehyde possibly responsible for a fraction of it. Of the cinnamon varieties, only Ceylon carries the proanthocyanidin.13
Insulin. Another Ceylon isolate, a proanthocyanidin called proanthocyanidin B1, was shown to mimic – and even surpass – the effect of insulin in certain fat tissues.14 This particular proanthocyanidin only occurs in three places: Ceylon cinnamon bark, cat’s claw root, and the leaf of the common grape vine.
There have been mixed views on cinnamon’s efficacy in diabetic patients. One study found little overall average difference between lab results in type 2 diabetic patients given either 1.5g/d Cassia powder or placebo, although the Cassia patients enjoyed slightly larger drops in HbA1c with some experiencing more drastic reductions. The study’s authors didn’t find it statistically significant, but the results may suggest that certain individuals may be especially responsive to Cassia and Ceylon. At any rate, it’s worth trying, because people are not statistics, and the average/mean isn’t everything. Some people improved markedly, even though statistical analysis showed little difference. Any benefits in glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, another study noted, are also short-lived, making steady intake necessary for lasting effects.
Hypoglycemia, if your blood sugar is already on the low side18
Irritated airways if you accidentally inhale some while eating19
Coumarin in Cinnamon
Note that Cassia contains significant amounts of coumarin, which humans metabolize to 7-hydroxycoumarin, a toxin that damages the liver20 and kidneys in high amounts. Rodents metabolize it to 3,4-coumarin epoxide, a highly toxic compound, making coumarin a common ingredient in rodenticides.
A teaspoon of Cassia cinnamon powder contains 5.8 to 12.1 mg of coumarin and, according to the European Food Safety Authority, the tolerable daily intake for humans is 0.1mg/kg body weight, meaning a daily teaspoon might exceed the limit for smaller individuals.21 The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has gone on record in cautioning against high daily intakes of coumarin.22
In the end and for all their differences, Ceylon and Cassia are actually pretty similar (similar enough to pass for each other, for one!). They both have potent pharmacological benefits, and they’re both delicious in curries, coconut milk, coffee, and – my personal favorite when I eat them – on sweet potatoes or yams. If it’s cinnamaldehyde you’re after, the general rule is that the sweeter the cinnamon, the more concentrated the cinnamaldehyde (although ultra-concentrated doses grow more pungent). There are valid concerns with the amount of coumarin in Cassia, making daily usage of therapeutic doses questionable. Ceylon contains negligible amounts of coumarin, but its blood glucose benefits don’t seem to be as potent as Cassia’s. In my opinion, using both while never straying too far over 1 teaspoon of Cassia per day (larger individuals can go higher) is a good, safe bet.
One possible way to avoid coumarin and still eat Cassia is to make hot tea. From what I could gather online, coumarin is fat-soluble only, meaning steeping Cassia in hot water, broth (fat skimmed), or tea could extract the beneficial compounds and leave out the coumarin. Just strain the solids and drink. It may also be that traditional usage of cinnamon utilized the whole bark form, rather than the powder. Folks may not have been actually consuming the cinnamon solids, but it’s difficult to know. I assume steeping a big piece of Cassia in a pot of curry or other fatty stew would extract plenty of coumarin, provided it’s indeed fat-soluble. Either way, it’s not going to kill you unless you’re consuming heaps and heaps of Cassia powder. I suppose if you’re really worried about it, you could try one of the commercial cinnamon water-extractions on the market, but I’m usually a fan of food-based “supplementation” as long as the supplement in question exists in appreciable amounts in whole food – which they certainly do in this case.
Ah, what to use, how to extract it, and how much to consume? – the eternal question facing us students of health and optimal nutrition. Just eat, steep, grind, or cook with it, and you’ll be fine.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.