Cinnamon is a common spice that we’re all familiar with and most of us have a jar in the pantry. We love it and use it in many ways, yet many of us don’t know a lot about this delicious spice. And some things about cinnamon are VERY important to know, especially if you’re on blood thinning medications. Check out the article below to learn more about this wonderful spice from what it is, to its health benefits, to different ways to use it.
Cinnamon 101 – The Basics
Cinnamon is an ancient spice that has been used for thousands of years, even with mention of it in the Bible. It was often used as a fragrance to bury the dead, in religious ceremonies, and as a component of holy oil. It comes from the inner bark of different species of Cinnamomum species of evergreen trees. The peels are left to dry, when they curl up naturally, forming what we know as cinnamon sticks. The sticks can then be ground into powder, processed to extract the oil, or made into other products.
Cinnamon was very popular in Europe in the Middle Ages and was used as a status symbol among the elite. Cinnamon is one of the reasons why Christopher Columbus was looking for an alternate route to the East Indies.
There are two types of cinnamon: “true” cinnamon, which is Cinnamomum verum, and “regular” cinnamon, also known as “Chinese cinnamon” or “cassia” cinnamon, which is Cinnamomum cassia. Cinnamon may also be harvested from other species within the Cinnamomum family. True cinnamon is native to Ceylon and Southern India, whereas cassia cinnamon is native to the Eastern Himalayan Mountains and Southeast Asia. Both are derived from the inner bark of different members of the Laurel family, and are similar in flavor. Cassia cinnamon is the most common variety found in the United States, whereas most of the world believes it is inferior to the other variety, “true” or Ceylon cinnamon. Both varieties may be sold as “cinnamon” in the United States, so it can be hard to distinguish between the two.
Cassia cinnamon has a stronger flavor than that of Ceylon cinnamon, which is more subtle. The characteristic flavor and aroma of cinnamon is due to the cinnamaldehyde which is found in its oil.
Health Benefits of Cinnamon
Although we eat very little cinnamon at one time, it does have some nutritional value. A mere one teaspoon of ground cinnamon has 6 calories, along with fiber, calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, Vitamin K and Vitamin A. More notably, cinnamon has some health benefits beyond its nutritional elements. Cinnamon has been shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antimicrobial properties.
Antioxidants and Anti-Inflammatory Effects: Cinnamon has been found to have a lot of polyphenol antioxidants known to protect the body from harmful free radical molecules. The antioxidants in cinnamon have also been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects which can help to lower our risk of disease.
Protection from Heart Disease: Subjects with type 2 diabetes who ate 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon a day were found to have improved total cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglyceride levels. Animal studies showed that cinnamon also can reduce blood pressure. These studies show that cinnamon may reduce our risk for heart disease.
Anti-Diabetic Effects: Cinnamon has also been found to reduce insulin resistance, making it helpful on controlling blood sugar levels. Also, cinnamon has been shown to reduce the amount of glucose that enters the bloodstream after a meal, further increasing its anti-diabetic effects.
Anti-Cancer Effects: Animal studies have found that compounds in cinnamon have also been found to reduce the growth of cancer cells and angiogenesis (the formation of blood vessels that feed tumors).
Antimicrobial Protection: Cinnamaldehyde found in cinnamon oil has been shown to have antimicrobial properties. Cinnamon oil has been found to successfully treat respiratory tract fungal infections. It can also inhibit the growth of some harmful bacteria, including Listeria and Salmonella. The antimicrobial effects of cinnamon oil may also reduce tooth decay and remedy bad breath. Laboratory tests have also found that cinnamon oil may be effective in combating HIV-1, the most common strain of virus causing HIV in humans.
Brain Protection: Researchers believe that Ceylon cinnamon appears to help protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease. It appears to improve the brain’s response to insulin, protecting the brain from hyperglycemia, preventing cognitive decline.
Do not eat cinnamon dry! Despite cinnamon’s healthful and flavorful benefits, it’s important not to take it dry (like the “cinnamon challenge” in recent years). This can cause choking, vomiting, and breathing issues.
Ceylon vs Cassia Cinnamon (The Issue of Coumarin): Cassia cinnamon (not Ceylon cinnamon) contains a relatively high amount of coumarin, a naturally occurring substance that some plants use as a defense mechanism against predators. A derivative of coumarin is the major component of the drug Warfarin, an anticoagulant that inhibits the activity of Vitamin K in the clotting of blood. Eating a relatively small amount of cassia cinnamon is safe. Ceylon cinnamon contains only trace amounts of coumarin, but it too contains other compounds that may have potentially harmful effects when taken in large amounts. Therefore, the maximum recommended amount of cinnamon per day for an adult is under 1 teaspoon. The dosage for children would be less. Use cinnamon for flavoring as a spice, but not as a separate food or indulgence.
Supplements: Most cinnamon supplements in the United States are made with cassia cinnamon. If you elect to take cinnamon supplements, it is advisable to seek out Ceylon cinnamon rather than taking cassia cinnamon, because of the possibilities of ingesting too much coumarin. If necessary, call the maker of the supplement to be sure.
A little cinnamon is good; just don’t overindulge! Because of its coumarin content along with other compounds, eating large amounts of cassia cinnamon can put you at risk for liver toxicity and damage, some types of cancer (lung, liver and kidney), mouth sores in people who are allergic to the cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon oil (when eating a lot of cinnamon flavoring agents), low blood sugar (especially in those taking medications for diabetes), and it may interfere with some medications (for diabetes, heart disease, and liver disease).
Selecting Cinnamon: Cassia vs Ceylon
In the United States, both cassia and Ceylon cinnamons can be labeled as “cinnamon.” Unless the label clearly states that a bottle contains Ceylon cinnamon, it can be hard to tell which you’re getting. If you’re wondering what type of cinnamon you’re getting when you buy cinnamon sticks, notice the shape of the stick. Ceylon cinnamon sticks are curled, but form a telescope-like shape when dried, and curl from one side. Cassia cinnamon sticks curl inward from both sides, like a scroll.
Regarding appearance and flavor…Ceylon cinnamon is tan with a delicate, sweet flavor. Cassia cinnamon is reddish brown, coarser in texture, and has a more pungent flavor and aroma.
How to Store Cinnamon
To preserve the freshness of cinnamon, store it in a cool, dark place in an airtight container. Ground cinnamon will keep fresh for about six months. The sticks will retain their freshness for about a year. Storing cinnamon in the refrigerator can help to extend its shelf life. If your cinnamon does not have its characteristic aroma, it has become stale and should be replaced.
Quick Tips and Ideas for Using Cinnamon
Cinnamon is a versatile spice that is usually used in sweet breads and desserts. But it can also be used in savory applications too, as is commonly done in Indian, Vietnamese, and Chinese cuisines. Below are some simple ways to include cinnamon in foods.
* Use cinnamon to add a sweet-spicy flavor to cakes, pies, cookies, cobblers, puddings, and other desserts.
* Sprinkle cinnamon over an apple pie or crisp.
* Combine cinnamon with sugar and have it available to sprinkle on desserts, cereals, toast, breads, muffins, or anywhere you want a sweet cinnamon flavor.
* Cinnamon can be added as a flavoring in marinades for beef, venison, or lamb.
* Add some cinnamon to hot chocolate, which is commonly done in Mexico.
* Add a cinnamon stick to a cup of hot tea, cocoa, cider or coffee to add a cinnamon flavor to your beverage.
* Add cinnamon sticks or essential oil to room fresheners and sachets.
* Sprinkle cinnamon on a fruit salad.
* Add some cinnamon into pudding or other desserts.
* Add some cinnamon in a curry recipe.
* Add some cinnamon to pancake batter.
* Add some cinnamon to your morning smoothie.
* Add some cinnamon and honey to roasted sweet potatoes.
* Sprinkle roasted butternut squash with cinnamon.
* Boost your morning oatmeal by adding in some cooked sweet potato and sprinkle with cinnamon.
* Make a sweet potato smoothie by blending cooked sweet potato, banana (or another fruit like a peach), almond milk, and a little cinnamon.
Herbs/Spices That Go Well with Cinnamon
Cloves, curry powder, garam masala, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla
Foods That Go Well with Cinnamon
Proteins, Nuts, Seeds: Almonds, beans, halibut, lamb, nuts (in general), pork, poultry
Vegetables: Beets, carrots, cauliflower, chiles, onions, rhubarb, sweet potatoes, tomatoes
Fruit: Apples, apple cider, apple juice, bananas, blueberries, coconut, dates, fruits (in general), grapefruit, grapes, lemon, oranges, peaches, pears, raisins
Grains and Grain Products: Baked goods, cereals, corn, couscous, oatmeal, popcorn, rice
Dairy and Non-Dairy: Butter, ice cream, milk (dairy and non-dairy), yogurt
Other: Chocolate and cocoa, coffee and espresso, honey, maple syrup, rose water, sugar, wine
Cinnamon has been used in the following foods and cuisines:
Baked goods (i.e. breads, cakes, cookies, muffins, pastries, pies), beverages (i.e. cocoa, eggnog, hot chocolate), breakfast/brunch (i.e. coffee cake, French toast, pancakes), cereals (hot breakfast), chili (vegetarian), compotes (fruit), curries, custards, desserts (i.e. crisps, custards, puddings), fruit desserts, ice cream, Indian cuisine, Mediterranean cuisines, Mexican cuisines, Middle Eastern cuisines, Moroccan cuisine, sauces (i.e. chocolate), stews, stuffings, teas
Suggested Flavor Combos using Cinnamon
Add cinnamon to the following combos…
Almonds + grains (i.e. couscous, oats) + raisins
Almonds + rice
Chocolate + milk
Maple syrup + pecans
Whole Baked Sweet Potatoes (with Cinnamon Sugar) https://www.thespruceeats.com/whole-baked-sweet-potatoes-3061582
Easy Butternut Squash Casserole with Maple and Cinnamon https://www.thespruceeats.com/easy-butternut-squash-casserole-3062209
Spiced Apple Fritters https://www.thespruceeats.com/spiced-apple-fritters-3056323
Healthy Pumpkin Apple Crisp (Gluten-Free) https://www.onceuponapumpkinrd.com/healthy-pumpkin-apple-crisp-gluten-free/
15 Recipes for People Obsessed with Cinnamon https://www.thekitchn.com/15-recipes-for-people-obsessed-with-cinnamon-235202
50 Ways to Bake with Cinnamon https://www.tasteofhome.com/collection/cinnamon-recipes/
20 Savory Cinnamon Recipes https://www.myrecipes.com/course/savory-cinnamon-recipes?
21 Charming Ways to Use Cinnamon https://www.cosmopolitan.com/food-cocktails/a29536/cinnamon-recipes/
Page, Karen. (2014) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.