Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
18 May

Smart Spice: Cinnamon

We mostly see them as flavorants, as the little jars of powder that line our cabinets and the bags of dried roots, barks, and leaves tucked away in drawers, designed to subtly or drastically alter the flavor profile of our “smart fuel” creations in the kitchen, but for most of human history, spices were also prized for their medicinal qualities. Turmeric for GI disorders and inflammation. Chili peppers for pain management. Ginger for 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. One of the most beneficial is also the most common: cinnamon.

It’s important to realize that there are multiple varieties of cinnamon.

  • There’s 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 cinnamon candies, that’s real Ceylon you’re tasting.
  • There’s Cassia, or cinnamomum aromaticum. It’s 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.
  • There’s also 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.

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 crap.” 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.

Cinnamaldehyde’s benefits include:

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.

In human melanomas grafted onto mice, orally-administered cinnamaldehyde impaired cancer cell proliferation, invasiveness, and tumor growth.

Cinnamaldehyde, by (derived from Cassia bark, in fact) activating a protective antioxidant effect in human epithelial colon cells, evinced potential chemoprevention against colon cancer.

Cinnamon oil, most of which is cinnamaldehyde, is an effective insect repellant with the ability to specifically target and kill mosquito larvae.

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.

Cassia may help relieve the muscular insulin resistance that occurs following a bad night’s sleep.

Although it’s “cinnamon oil” that kills bugs and something with “cinnamon” practically right there in the name itself may fight cancer, “fake” cinnamon actually contains more cinnamaldehyde than “true” cinnamon. That’s right – Cassia oil has the most cinnamaldehyde.

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.

Remember c. elegans, those plucky roundworms whose lifespan increased with both intermittent fasting and glucose restriction (the glucose study’s author, Cynthia Kenyon, has even adopted a low-carb diet in light of the results), and which have been deemed suitable models for the study of glucose restriction in higher mammals? Cassia bark had a similar effect on them, too.

That’s not to say that Ceylon doesn’t have its benefits, too:

One study showed that cinnamon oil extracted from Ceylon bark reduced early stage diabetic nephropathy, or kidney disease. This particular oil was high (98% by volume) in cinnamaldehyde.

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.

Another Ceylon isolate, a proanthocyanidin called proanthocyanidin B1, was shown to mimic – and even surpass – the effect of insulin in certain fat tissues (PDF). 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/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.

Note that Cassia contains significant amounts of coumarin, which humans metabolize to 7-hydroxycoumarin, a toxin moderately damaging to the liver and kidneys. 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. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has gone on record in cautioning against high daily intakes of coumarin (PDF).

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.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Last night I dumped a heck of a lot of cinnamon (a ton!) into my post workout vanilla protein shake. I drink them with just water and a couple of ice cubes blended. What a difference it made! I plan on dumping cinnamon into them from here on out! Perfectly paired with vanilla in my opinion :)

    Reid wrote on May 18th, 2010
  2. We always add cinnamon to our coffee, sweet potatoes and most recipes for the added flavor. At leats now I know why I love this stuff so much!!!

    Matt wrote on May 18th, 2010
    • I add cinnamon to my coffee also, love it!

      Donna wrote on May 18th, 2010
    • “We?” Learn to speak for yourself or at least denoted to whom “we” refers.

      Joseph L. wrote on July 26th, 2013
      • There’s two people in the picture, Cranky.

        Rich wrote on December 7th, 2013
  3. Awesome! I always knew there was a reason I like cinnamon so much. This is great information! Cinnamon and clove flavoured gum were, and still are, my favourite once-in-a-while treats.

    Ashtron wrote on May 18th, 2010
  4. I absolutely love cinnamon! I add it to my kefir, my shakes, my yogurt with fruit, my tea…I am interested in a recipe that uses cinnamon with chicken…

    EarthBeauty wrote on May 18th, 2010
      • I made this last night and it was delicious! Thanks for the dinner inspiration.

        SK1 wrote on May 19th, 2010
    • I also make almond milk smoothies, fruit smoothies for breakfast, and Greek yogurt w/fruit and chia seeds..except we use ginger in the powder form instead…we tried cinnamon he broke out in the hives and I had some indigestion; some have food intolerance, and ginger works great.

      laura m. wrote on June 22nd, 2012
    • I make fajitas with cinnamon:

      Strips of chick breast

      Red,yellow & green bell peppers


      Yellow & purple onion

      Olive oil to sautée

      For spices:

      Red pepper flakes
      Squeeze of lime

      Catherine wrote on April 18th, 2013
    • Here’s a really great chicken tagine recipe with cinnamon and a bunch of other healthy spices. Delicious with or without the cous cous. 😊

      Cat wrote on January 13th, 2015
  5. i add cinnamon to my indian style curries. it gives it a really good flavour (plus the recipe calls for it :P)

    norcalgal wrote on May 18th, 2010
  6. Cinnamon is one of those special spices that can trick our palates into thinking something is sweet, so you can reduce the sugar in lots of recipes by using cinnamon (and nutmeg and cloves and even coconut as well) to impart sweetness.

    I made a fruit salad and topped it with cinnamon and shredded coconut the other week, and it was hit! No sugar necessary :)

    Hannah wrote on May 18th, 2010
  7. love love love cinnamon! i shake it on apples, protein shakes, coffee. i just ordered a cinnamon leaf tea last night! can’t wait :)

    misathemeb wrote on May 18th, 2010
  8. cinnamon + coconut cream= naturally sweet thick pudding…. LOVE IT!!!

    also good with cumin, chili, cayenne for a spicing, esp on pork

    Mallory wrote on May 18th, 2010
    • Any chance you have the recipe for said pudding? Sounds awesome

      Andy wrote on August 27th, 2010
  9. I love using Cinnamon in just about anything. I do have some Saigon but it is a bit pricey. I save it for dusting my Cappuchino.

    Mike Cheliak wrote on May 18th, 2010
  10. Excellent post, as always Mark! I’m going to go make myself a cup of cinnamon tea now.

    maba wrote on May 18th, 2010
  11. I always tried to stay away from cinnamon because my perception was “if it tastes good, it must be bad”. After stumbling upon marks daily apple I’ve realized I was dead wrong!!! Even the healthiest of foods can taste great without adding garbage (sugar) to it.

    Trevor wrote on May 18th, 2010
  12. Some of the ways I use cinnamon is on my grilled sweet potatoes and in my protein shakes…so good but always on the lookout for new ways to use it to keep my clients from getting bored.

    Susan wrote on May 18th, 2010
    • some fresh nutmeg in the gdrins? How do you take your coffee? Let us know in the comments below.Swap Sugar for Cinnamon [Greatist]Tags beverages food Related Stories Ditch Your Dysfunctional Diet And Learn To Love

      Soukaina wrote on June 7th, 2012
  13. Cinnamon, pure vanilla extract, coconut milk, and berries is one of my favorite snacks/side dish. My 2 year old son loves it to! Good to know that the cinnamon has health benefits beyond just tasting good!

    Andrew wrote on May 18th, 2010
  14. so I just got the biggest shocker when looking at the ingredients list on my Club House ground cinnamon:
    cinnamon, hydrogenated cottonseed and soy oil.
    WTF??? why is there hydrogenated oil in my spices??
    I’m going to be more aware of this when shopping from now on :(

    I <3 cinnamon though, in my coffee, coconut milk (if refridgerated, tastes like pudding!), curries… mmmm!

    fishergirl wrote on May 18th, 2010
    • I was just going to ask where to buy it. I was going to joke around and say they probably add HFCS to the cinnamon they sell in the grocery store. I will be sure to look at labels….thanks for bringing this to my attention.

      Aaron Curl wrote on May 19th, 2010
  15. Right around during the time when I went primal about 7 weeks ago, I started to add cinnamon to my smoothies or fruit bowls amongst a few other things. I never thought about putting it on sweet potatoes.

    Knowing it has countless benefits is an added plus. I don’t use it daily, but will be sure to try it on various other food items. Oh, its good on omelets!

    Primal Toad wrote on May 18th, 2010
  16. I add it to quiche, which gets rave reviews after people make faces about it. They quickly change their minds once they’ve had a bite. It goes marvelously with crab, as well.

    Wngdwolf wrote on May 18th, 2010
  17. People love cinnamon. It should be on tables at restaurants along with salt and pepper. Anytime anyone says, “Oh This is so good. What’s in it?” The answer invariably comes back, Cinnamon. Cinnamon. Again and again.

    Uncle Herniation wrote on May 18th, 2010
    • Love that babka!

      Erik Cisler wrote on May 18th, 2010
    • Cinnamon takes a back seat to no babka!

      Joshua wrote on June 22nd, 2012
  18. Very interesting, as usual. I’ll start putting some cinnamon in my foods throughout the week and I’ll post a list in a comment of what I tried.

    I think we all should do that with every food you write about.


    P.S. Who would think cinnamon was primal!

    Iván Pérez wrote on May 18th, 2010
  19. In turkey, quite often, they use cassia instead of peppercorn in recipe. That’s an interesting fact, imo.

    Jean-Patrick wrote on May 18th, 2010
  20. Eggs!! Put it in your eggs. Seriously. I crave french toast all the time and eggs with cinnamon tastes almost exactly like french toast. In fact I’m gonna make some right now.


    Paul Von Tersch wrote on May 18th, 2010
    • I never thought of cinnamon in eggs, but it totally makes sense with the french toast theory. I’ll have to try that!

      Primal K@ wrote on May 18th, 2010
      • I make coconut flour pancakes with cinnamon, and they are basically just eggs, cinnamon, and 2T of coconut flour! A way to make an even fluffier version of primal “french toast.” :)

        SK1 wrote on May 19th, 2010
  21. That is interesting about it being an effective mossie repellent. We seem to be inundated at the moment. I wonder if sprinkling cinnamon oil in my garden would help or if my dogs would end up licking it up and cause them damage?

    Suse wrote on May 18th, 2010
  22. A week ago I tore the little tin foil tops off all the bottles of spices in the spice rack my best friend bought for me.

    Now I’m adding them when I cook.

    I can’t say I follow recipes. I smell and if it smells good, I add.

    My food tastes better, and if it’s healthier, wonderful.

  23. I’ve been putting cinnamon in my coffee for years. Such a perfect addition! Thanks for the post! I’m going to get creative in the kitchen with cinnamon starting with eggs a la Paul :)

    Primal K@ wrote on May 18th, 2010
  24. I eat boatloads of cinnamon. Of course I over-consume pretty much everything, but no kidding sometimes like 10 tablespoons a sitting. This coumarin info is interesting. I’ll have to read up a little more on that. Knew there had to be some sort of drawback, but never looked.

    Grok wrote on May 18th, 2010
  25. Cinnamon has been known throughout time as good for your heart. Maybe that is why the little red-hot hearts are so popular at Valentine’s? I have seen studies and folk lore suggesting it is a cure or controller for everything from heart disease and high blood pressure, diabetes, digestive trouble, candida, eczema and even topical remedies for hair loss!! Apparently mixing it with honey has a synergistic effect and brings out all sorts of qualities that aid in heath and wellbeing. Google Honey + Cinnamon one day for an overwhelming list of the many many things it helps to regulate or improve. Plus they taste amazing together.

    Leanne wrote on May 18th, 2010
  26. Cinnamon is so great; why not use it!? what do you have to lose!?

    I always put some in my morning cereal or just sprinkle it in with iced coffee (if I ever order one). It adds a delicious flavor!

    Katherine wrote on May 19th, 2010
  27. I love the flavor of cinnamon. Actually, I will start… hm… I will try adding it to my morning black coffee and see if I like the combo.


    Yavor wrote on May 19th, 2010
  28. Cinnamon on Chicken, never tried that. I love cinnamon in homemade vanilla almond milk. Hmm. I guess I’ll have to up my count cause I used very liitle of it. Great post as always Mark. I’m enjoying the ideas everyone shares. Thanks. 😉

    madeline wrote on May 19th, 2010
  29. Been waiting for cinammon to get its due recognition for a while. I’ve used it as a healthy flavourant in my food for years.
    The taste becomes addictive a bit like using chilli all the time but I wouldn’t go without cinammon on my porridge or natural Greek yoghurt.

    Luke M-Davies wrote on May 19th, 2010
  30. I had a cat that peed on our tile floor. The only thing that seemed to get the smell out was cinnamon.

    I put the unwashed empty cinnamon containers in dresser drawers to hopefully repel moths and make what ever is in there smell nice.

    I have read that you can put cinnamon on ant trails to repel them but I haven’t tried it.

    Besides all the aforementioned uses of cinnamon in recipes, I will add, it is good with chocolate in smoothies.

    Sharon wrote on May 19th, 2010
  31. It’s great to finally here that something I love is good for me!

    Has anyone ever had cinnamon and pork?

    I made this a couple of weeks ago and we loved it. The leftovers made a great spicy soup too :)

    Zibi wrote on May 19th, 2010
  32. I like getting accidently caught with cinnamon all over my sticky buns.

    oops…wrong site

    ron t wrote on May 19th, 2010
  33. I always swap in cinnamon for recipes that call for a tablespoon or two of sugar. You get a sweet flavor while adding some good benefits without the guilt.
    Great post!

    Ashley North wrote on May 21st, 2010
  34. I add cinnamon to my frozen vegetables as they cook. It perks them up.

    Suz wrote on May 25th, 2010
    • I’ve not tried that one before but will give it a go as frozen veg can be a little bland compared to fresh sometimes!

      Luke M-Davies wrote on May 25th, 2010

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!