As soon as the sun goes down on the last day of summer, the world seems to explode with warm autumn spices. We see cinnamon candles, baked goods and bundles of cinnamon sticks as decor. While pumpkin spice takes center stage, it’s not the pumpkin you’re looking for – it’s the cinnamon with other warm spices that will make your chilly nights extra cozy. You can 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 have also been valued for their medicinal properties. Turmeric has been used in food and to treat indigestion and inflammation. Chili peppers have been used to treat pain. Ancient healers used ginger for nausea and diarrhea.
These are not just exaggerated cases of “folk medicine” or “stories of old women” either. Recent research has confirmed that many common spices actually have medicinal properties. Cinnamon, one of the most beneficial spices, can also be found in almost every kitchen.
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Different types of cinnamon
It’s important to know that there are several types of cinnamon.
- Ceylon cinnamon or “real cinnamon” or Cinnamomum zeylanicum. Ceylon cinnamon comes from the crumbly inner bark of the Cinnamomum zeylanicum tree and tastes sweet and delicate. It’s light brown. You should be able to easily tear a stick of real cinnamon in half. If you’ve ever eaten old school cinnamon candies this is the real Ceylon you are trying.
- Cassia or Cinnamomum aromaticum. Cassia is usually sold as cinnamon in the United States. Recipes that call for cinnamon can use cassia instead with no problem, but cassia has a tougher, overpowering taste with less sweetness and more raw potency. It’s a darker, more reddish brown. Cassia sticks are pretty sturdy and woody. Cassia is cheaper to produce and cheaper to buy than Ceylon.
- Saigon cinnamon or Cinnamomum loureiroi. Saigon cinnamon is the most precious member of the cassia family. It has a full, complex taste with even less sweetness. Saigon cinnamon is generally quite expensive.
Which type of cinnamon is the best?
As for the supposed health benefits of consuming cinnamon, one would think that “real cinnamon” is best. I mean, it’s the real stuff, isn’t it? A quick look on the internet seems to confirm this suspicion. Most of the references can be found on message boards and on herbal medicine websites. You are told to “buy real Ceylon cinnamon, not the cassia stuff”. But what is the reality like? Does “true” necessarily mean “better”?
Let’s look at the potential benefits of consuming cinnamon as well as the chemical component that appears to be responsible for it. Most researchers have focused on cinnamaldehyde, the organic compound that gives cinnamon its distinctive taste. Hold your seat tight. We’re getting a little technical.
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Ceylon vs. Cassia Cinnamon: Health Benefits and Risks According to Science
Here are some cinnamon health benefits that are backed by research.
- Oral hygiene. Rather than just masking a person’s bad breath, the cinnamon aldehyde in cinnamon-flavored chewing gum actually exerts an antimicrobial effect on the tongue bacteria that cause bad breath.
- Skin cancer. In human melanomas transplanted into mice, orally administered cinnamaldehyde impaired the proliferation, invasiveness and tumor growth of cancer cells.
- Colon cancer. Cinnamaldehyde, which (actually derived from cassia bark) activates a protective antioxidant effect in human colon epithelial cells, has shown potential chemoprevention against colon cancer.
- Insect control. Cinnamon oil, most of which is cinnamon aldehyde, is an effective insect repellent with the ability to target and kill mosquito larvae.
- Heart health and blood sugar markers. Cinnamaldehyde has been shown to lower HbA1c, total cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, while increasing plasma insulin, liver glycogen, and HDL levels. The oral dosage used – 20 mg / kg body weight – was not an unrealistic amount.
- Blood sugar. Cassia can help alleviate muscle insulin resistance that occurs after a poor night’s sleep.
- diabetes. In another study, researchers using both cassia extract and Ceylon extract found that cassia was more effective in diabetic rats seen in a glucose tolerance test.
- Parasites. Remember c. elegans, those courageous roundworms whose lifespan increased with both intermittent fasting and glucose restriction (the author of the glucose study, Cynthia Kenyon, even introduced a low-carb diet in light of the results) and which were seen as suitable models for studying glucose restriction at higher levels Mammals. The cassia bark also had a similar effect.
- Kidneys. One study showed that cinnamon oil extracted from Ceylon bark reduced early-stage diabetic nephropathy, or kidney disease. This particular oil was high in tin amaldehyde (98% by volume).
- Cognitive decline. An aqueous solution of Ceylon cinnamon bark inhibited two common features of Alzheimer’s disease: tau aggregation and filament formation. The researchers isolated an A-linked proanthocyanidin (a type of polyphenol) and found that it handled the lion’s share of the inhibition of tau aggregation, with cinnamaldehyde possibly responsible for part of it. Of the cinnamon varieties, only Ceylon carries proanthocyanidin.
- insulin. Another Ceylon isolate, a proanthocyanidin called proanthocyanidin B1, has been shown to mimic – and even exceed – the effects of insulin in certain adipose tissues. This particular proanthocyanidin occurs only in three places: Ceylon cinnamon bark, cat’s claw root and the leaf of the grapevine.
There have been mixed views about the effectiveness of cinnamon in diabetics. One study found a small mean difference between laboratory results in type 2 diabetics given either 1.5 g / d cassia powder or placebo, although cassia patients had slightly greater drops in HbA1c, with some more drastic reductions exhibited. The study’s authors didn’t find it statistically significant, but the results could suggest that certain individuals respond particularly to cassia and Ceylon. Definitely worth a try because people are not statistics and the mean / mean isn’t everything. Some people improved significantly, although statistical analyzes showed little difference. All the benefits of glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, according to another study, are also short-lived, so steady intake is required for lasting effects.
Cinnamon Risks and Side Effects
The side effects of cinnamon can include:
- Mouth sores (if you are allergic to them)
- DNA damage
- Increased risk of certain types of cancer
- Hypoglycaemia, when your blood sugar is already low
- Irritated airways if you accidentally breathe in something while eating
Coumarin in cinnamon
Note that cassia contains significant amounts of coumarin, which humans metabolize to 7-hydroxycoumarin, a toxin that damages the liver and kidneys in large quantities. Rodents metabolize it to 3,4-coumarin-epoxide, a highly toxic compound, which makes coumarin a common component of rodenticides.
One teaspoon of cassia cinnamon powder contains 5.8 to 12.1 mg of coumarin. According to the European Food Safety Authority, the tolerable daily intake for humans is 0.1 mg / kg body weight, which means that one daily teaspoon can exceed the limit for smaller people. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has been shown to warn against high daily intake of coumarin.
In the end, and for all their differences, Ceylon and Cassia are actually pretty similar (similar enough to exist for one another!). They both have powerful 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. When looking for cinnamaldehyde, the general rule is: the sweeter the cinnamon, the more concentrated the cinnamaldehyde (although ultra-concentrated doses get more pungent). There are legitimate concerns about the amount of coumarin in cassia, which makes daily use of therapeutic doses questionable. Ceylon contains negligible amounts of coumarin, but its blood sugar benefits don’t appear to be as potent as cassia. In my view, It’s a good and safe thing to use both without sprinkling too far over 1 teaspoon of cassia per day (taller people can go higher).
One way to avoid coumarin and still eat cassia is to make hot tea. From what I have been able to collect online, coumarin is only fat soluble, which means that soaking cassia in hot water, broth (skimmed off), or tea could extract the beneficial compounds and leave out the coumarin. Simply strain off the solids and drink. Or, the traditional uses of cinnamon may have included the entire bark shape rather than the powder. People may not actually have consumed the cinnamon solids, but it’s hard to know. I’m assuming that soaking a large piece of cassia in a saucepan of curry or other fat stew would extract a lot of coumarin, provided it is actually fat soluble. Either way, if you don’t consume heaps and heaps of cassia powder, it won’t kill you. I suppose if you’re really worried you could try one of the commercial cinnamon water extractors on the market, but I’m usually a fan of food-based “nutritional supplements” as long as the supplement in question is present in significant amounts in whole foods – which they do in this case certainly do.
Ah what to use, how to extract and how much to consume? – the eternal question we students of health and optimal nutrition face. Just eat, pull, grind or cook with it and you’ll be fine.
About the author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Marks Daily Apple, godfather of the Primal Food and Lifestyle movement, and the New York Times best-selling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, which describes how he combines the keto diet with an original lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of numerous other books, including The Primal Blueprint, which is credited with the growth of the Primal / Paleo movement in 2009. After three decades of researching and educating people about why food is the key component to achieving optimal wellbeing, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real food company, the Primal / Paleo, Keto and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples manufactures.
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