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.
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.
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.
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.
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.