In this article:
- Cinnamon is one of the most popular spices used in different cultures all over the world.
- Cinnamon has a complex flavor profile that allows it to pair brilliantly with many different foods.
- The essential oils and antioxidants in cinnamon offer a variety of health benefits ranging from managing diabetes to menstrual pain.
- Pregnant women, children and people on medication for diabetes should be cautious about cinnamon consumption.
Cinnamomum is a genus of over 250 evergreen trees and shrubs, known for their soft, fragrant, and flavorful bark.
Cinnamon is made up of over 80 fragrant chemicals that combine to produce a unique aroma that is described as sweet, savory, and spicy.
The bark of the tree contains cinnamaldehyde, an essential oil that is mainly responsible for the cinnamon flavor and aroma. The bark is often ground into a powder and used as a spice in cooking. Alternatively, the bark may be rolled into cinnamon sticks.
The Italian word for cinnamon, canella, means “little cannon tubes,” describing the hollow cinnamon sticks commonly seen during winter holidays.
Cultures around the world have long recognized the value of cinnamon. As early as 2000 BC, cinnamon has been used for medicinal, religious, and culinary purposes. The early uses of cinnamon include the following:
- Detailed in the book “Exodus of the Old Testament,” Ancient Hebrews used “qinnämön” in anointing oil for sacred ceremonies.
- Likely due to the antimicrobial properties of cinnamic acid, Ancient Egyptians used cinnamon for embalming mummies.
- In Rome, this sacred essence was burned at funerals. At that time, cinnamon was more expensive than gold.
- The Greeks loved to use “κανέλα,” which means “sweet wood” in traditional cuisine.
- Traditional Asian medicine prescribes herbal tea, including cinnamon, to alleviate various ailments, including joint and menstrual pain.
Today, cinnamon is affordable and widely used in cooking. Researchers are beginning to investigate the validity of the traditional medicinal uses and newly proposed therapeutic effects of cinnamon.
This article will review the varieties, nutritional value, proposed health benefits, cautions, and culinary applications of cinnamon.
Varieties of Cinnamon
The two varieties of cinnamon most often sold in stores are Ceylon and cassia cinnamon.
|Flavor||Light, sweet||Strong, bitter|
|Price||Over 10 times as expensive||Inexpensive|
|Availability||Difficult to find in stores||90% of cinnamon in the US|
|Color||Light tan, brown||Dark red, brown|
|Bark||Multiple thin layers||One long, firm layer|
Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum Verum) is the “true cinnamon” native to Sri Lanka. This species is also grown in Indonesia, Brazil, Vietnam, and Egypt.
Ceylon cinnamon has a milder aroma and flavor than cassia cinnamon and is ideal for baking and desserts.
Cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia) is more common than Ceylon in the United States. Usually, the cinnamon sold in the grocery stores is cassia cinnamon. It has a stronger flavor than Ceylon cinnamon.
The two types appear similar when in powdered form. However, when the bark is rolled into sticks, you can see that the cassia bark is made up of one thick layer, whereas the Ceylon bark has multiple thin layers.
Ceylon cinnamon also contains lower levels of the toxic chemical coumarin and can be consumed safely in higher amounts than cassia cinnamon.
The nutritional content in 1 tsp (2.6 g) of cinnamon includes: (1)
|Nutrient||Amount in 1 tsp (2.6 g)||Daily Value|
|Vitamin K||0.8 mcg||1%|
Cinnamon contains fiber, vitamin K, calcium, iron, and manganese. However, cinnamon is usually eaten in small amounts as a spice in foods.
There is typically only 1 tsp of cinnamon in an entire pumpkin pie! In such small amounts, cinnamon in food does not contribute significant vitamins and minerals to most people’s diets.
Cinnamon’s health benefits are mostly attributed to components other than the essential vitamins and minerals:
- Cinnamaldehyde, eugenol, and camphor are essential oils in the bark and leaves. These oils are thought to have anti-inflammatory and infection-fighting benefits. (2)
- Proanthocyanidins (also known as tannins) are antioxidants present in cinnamon. These antioxidants are associated with a reduced risk of chronic disease. (3)
- Cinnamon contains many other antioxidants, including quercetin and oroxadin.
Proposed Health Benefits of Cinnamon
Cinnamon is a popular spice not only because of its use in the kitchen but also because of its touted health benefits.
1. Helps Keep Blood Sugar in Check
Insulin is a key body hormone that allows sugar in the blood to enter the cells and be used for energy. Type 2 diabetes, a common disorder, is a consequence of insulin resistance.
In this condition, the body produces insulin, but the cells are not very sensitive to it. Sugars do not enter the cells efficiently and begin to build up in the blood.
When too much sugar is in the blood, it starts to bind with protein and fat, forming compounds that damage blood vessels.
The damage contributes to the long-term complications of uncontrolled diabetes, including blindness, nerve damage, and kidney disease.
Cinnamon may have the following benefits:
- Some studies show that as little as 500 mg of cinnamon per day can help reduce blood sugar levels. (4)
- Laboratory studies show that fat cells bathed in the cinnamon extract have more transporters and enzymes that help sugar enter cells. (5) This effect improves insulin sensitivity and decreases blood sugar levels.
- Inflammation is known to increase insulin resistance. (6) The essential oils in cinnamon are anti-inflammatory and could help improve insulin sensitivity.
- The proanthocyanidins in cinnamon may block sugar from binding with protein and fat, decreasing blood vessel damage, and the long-term complications of type 2 diabetes. (7)
In 2013, a review of 10 randomized controlled trials examined the effects of cinnamon on type 2 diabetes control in humans. The reviewers found that cinnamon significantly reduced fasting blood sugar levels by 24.6 mg/dL. (8)
To put this into perspective, metformin (a common medication used for blood sugar control) decreases blood sugar by 58 mg/dL. However, this review also showed that cinnamon did not improve hemoglobin A1C levels.
Hemoglobin A1C is a measurement that shows the average blood sugar level over a 3-month period and is a better indicator of true blood sugar level than simply measuring the sugar level at one point in time.
Most of the trials included in the review were longer than 3 months. Therefore, if cinnamon did improve the average blood sugar level, hemoglobin A1C should have been significantly reduced.
A recent study in 2019 found that doses of 3-6 g of cinnamon per day decreased fasting blood sugar levels but did not significantly impact hemoglobin A1C. (9) Doses of 1 g of cinnamon per day were not as effective as higher doses in decreasing blood sugar.
Although there is evidence that cinnamon helps reduce fasting blood sugar levels, most studies show that it does not improve the average blood sugar over a 3-month period (hemoglobin A1C). (10) More research is needed to determine the true effect of cinnamon on diabetes control.
Furthermore, the long-term effects have not been well researched. Cinnamon should not replace prescribed type 2 diabetes treatment. Always consult your medical provider before trying alternative and complementary therapies.
2. Helps Reduce Menstrual Pain
Menstrual pain can range from a monthly annoyance to a condition that disrupts everyday activities and reduces the quality of life. Many women take anti-inflammatory medications to reduce cramping.
Unfortunately, long-term use of some anti-inflammatory drugs can have long-term side effects, including stomach ulcers and kidney damage.
The essential oils in cinnamon are anti-inflammatory and can help relieve menstrual pain. (11)(12) One randomized controlled trial that included 114 women compared the effect of 420 mg of cinnamon with that of 400 mg of ibuprofen and a placebo pill filled with starch. (11)
They found that cinnamon was more effective in decreasing pain than the placebo. However, cinnamon was not as effective as ibuprofen.
Cinnamon has been shown to reduce menstrual pain. However, it is not as effective as conventional treatment using anti-inflammatory drugs. Cinnamon also may not provide adequate relief for severe menstrual pain. Women who suffer from menstrual pain should consult their physician for the best treatment option.
3. Preserves Food
Preservatives added to food help increase shelf-life and safety by preventing bacterial growth. Although preservatives are beneficial for reducing contamination, many consumers are concerned about unnatural chemicals added to foods.
Therefore, natural sources such as some spices and herbs can be used alternatively. The essential oils in cinnamon have antibacterial effects and can be used for food preservation. (13) Its use can improve food safety without increasing the number of unnatural chemicals in food.
4. Helps Fight Infections
One consequence of treating infections with antibiotics is that the bacteria may adapt and become resistant to medications. Species of drug-resistant bacteria are developing, and scientists need to find new ways to fight the infections these bacteria cause.
Emerging research suggests that the oils in cinnamon could be used with antibiotic drugs to fight drug-resistant bacteria. (14) In laboratory studies, cinnamon extract increases the effectiveness of drugs.
When used with cinnamon, a smaller drug dose can have the same effect. Reducing drug doses decreases costs, potential drug side effects, and risk of bacteria becoming resistant.
Scientists are only beginning to uncover the role that cinnamon could play in fighting infections. More research is needed before cinnamon can be used to treat bacterial diseases.
5. Helps Improve Heart Health
Heart problems have a prominent mortality rate in the United States. Cinnamon may have several beneficial effects on heart health:
- Inflammation damages blood vessels and contributes to heart disease. The oils and antioxidants in cinnamon reduce inflammation and protect blood vessels.
- Studies done on rats show that cinnamon can decrease unhealthy cholesterol levels associated with heart disease. (15)(16)
- When blood vessels are constricted, the heart must work harder to pump blood. This state can overwork the heart and lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and heart failure.
Nitric oxide (NO) is made by cells in the body and helps blood vessels relax. Cinnamon has shown to promote the production of NO and improve blood pressure. (17)
Studies show that cinnamon has beneficial effects on heart health. However, most studies showing these benefits have been done on animals. It is unknown whether cinnamon would have the same effect on humans.
More research is needed on humans to determine whether cinnamon could be used to improve heart health.
6. Helps Prevent Cancer
Researchers are beginning to recognize the cancer-fighting potential of cinnamon. Studies on animals and cells show that cinnamaldehyde and eugenol prevent cancer growth in the following ways: (18)(19)
- Preventing tumor development by blocking signals that promote cell growth
- Interrupting the cell growth cycle
- Stimulating the cell death of cancer cells
- Regulating inflammation and the immune system to help the body fight cancer
Researchers hypothesize that cinnamon could be used as an alternative or complementary cancer therapy. However, there are no human studies that demonstrate that cinnamon is safe or effective in treating or preventing cancer. Further research is needed before cinnamon can be recommended for cancer treatment.
7. Promotes Nerve and Brain Health
Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are characterized by the loss of healthy nerve and brain cells. Neurotrophic factors are molecules that promote nerve cell health and growth.
Cinnamaldehyde has been shown to increase neurotrophic factors in the nervous system of mice. (20) This finding suggests that cinnamon may help promote nerve health and prevent neurodegenerative diseases.
Further research is needed to clarify the effect that cinnamon may play in brain and nervous system health in humans.
Please consider the following precautions before considering using cinnamon for its various proposed health benefits.
- Coumarin: Coumarin is a natural flavoring found in cinnamon. Isolated coumarin cannot be added to food products because it is known to cause liver damage and increase the risk of cancer.
- Dosage: In small amounts, coumarin does not cause health problems. It is generally considered safe to consume 0.05 mg of coumarin per pound of body weight per day.
This means that a 120-pound person could consume 6 mg of coumarin per day without any side effects. Cinnamon contains small amounts of coumarin.
Cassia cinnamon contains about 63 times the amount of coumarin found in Ceylon cinnamon. Cassia cinnamon has been shown to contain an average of 3 g of coumarin per 1 kg.
This means that a 120-pound person could eat 2 g of cassia cinnamon per day without side effects. Approximately 2.7 grams of cinnamon is equivalent to 1 tsp.
- Pregnancy: Cinnamon is safe for pregnant women when consumed in small amounts.
- Children: Children can tolerate lower levels of coumarin than adults. While a 120-pound adult can tolerate 6 mg of coumarin per day, a 60-pound child can only tolerate half that much. This means that even ½ tsp of cinnamon could increase a child’s risk of side effects from excessive coumarin.
- Blood-thinning medications: Coumarin is a known blood thinner. When coumarin is taken at the same time as other blood-thinning medications, the risk of bleeding increases.
Avoid consuming excessive cinnamon if you take blood-thinning drugs, including warfarin, heparin, enoxaparin sodium (Lovenox), and apixaban (Eliquis).
- Diabetes medications: The effect of cinnamon on blood sugar is still being explored in humans. Cinnamon should be consumed cautiously if you use other blood-sugar-lowering drugs such as metformin or insulin.
Hypoglycemia is caused by dangerously low blood sugar levels and can be fatal. Always consult a medical provider before using cinnamon supplementation if you take medications that affect blood sugar. The amount of cinnamon used as a spice in food is usually considered safe.
- Allergies: Cinnamon can cause allergic reactions, particularly if consumed in large amounts. Cinnamon should be avoided by those who are allergic to it to prevent possibly fatal reactions.
Reactions can be mild or severe depending on the portion size, duration of exposure, and the individual’s sensitivity. See a medical provider if you experience these symptoms after eating or touching cinnamon to determine if you have an allergy:
- Difficulty breathing
- Swollen mouth, lips, or tongue
- Itchy, red rash after touching cinnamon leaves
- Wheezing, coughing, or chest tightness
- Sneezing, congestion, or runny nose
Cinnamon in the Kitchen
Selection and Storage
Cinnamon can be purchased as a powder or rolled sticks. The powder is more convenient for use in baking and has a stronger flavor.
The sticks are a beautiful decoration used during the winter holidays; however, they can also be cooked into a variety of dishes.
Cinnamon should be stored in a sealed container. Ground cinnamon will stay fresh in a cool, dark, and dry area of the kitchen for about 6 months. Sticks remain fresh for about 1 year.
Cinnamon will become darker in color and lose its sweet aroma with age. Cinnamon that no longer smells sweet should be discarded.
Cinnamon is not just for pumpkin pie! With its complex flavor profile, cinnamon has many applications in the kitchen, including savory, spicy, and sweet recipes. These are a few examples of how cinnamon can be used in food:
- Cinnamon adds flavor to cola beverages, chai tea, coffee, alcoholic drinks, and hot chocolate.
- Cinnamon can be baked into your favorite sweets and bread, including cinnamon rolls, pumpkin pie, apple crisp, and carrot cake.
- Cinnamon gives a sweet and spicy kick to candies such as hot tamales and cinnamon bears.
- Cinnamon sugar is delicious to sprinkle on oatmeal, fruit, cereal, or French toast.
- Garam masala, an Indian spice mix, contains cinnamon among other spices and gives a unique flavor to curry.
- Cinnamon sticks may be baked with chicken, lamb, or grains such as rice or quinoa.
- Whole sticks simmered in water add flavor to beverages, marinades, and soups.
Enjoy the flavor and aroma of cinnamon with these dishes:
1. Slow Cooker Cinnamon and Rosemary Rotisserie Chicken
- Aluminum foil
- One 4-pound whole chicken, defrosted
- 1 lemon, quartered
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- ¼ white onion, roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tbsp dried rosemary (or 3 stalks fresh rosemary leaves)
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp black pepper
- Zest from 1 lemon (don’t throw out the rest of the lemon!)
- Take all the rub ingredients together into a small bowl and mix thoroughly.
- Lightly grease the slow cooker. Roll the aluminum foil into four balls (larger than golf balls but smaller than tennis balls), and arrange them at the bottom of the cooker forming corners of a square.
- Remove the inner parts of the chicken.
- Rinse the chicken: Pat the outside and inside dry with paper towels.
- Using your hands, rub the spice mix all over the chicken.
- Stuff the chicken with lemon, cinnamon sticks, and onion.
- Place the chicken in the slow cooker, balanced on the aluminum foil balls.
- Cook on low for 6-8 hours until it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F.
- For a crispy chicken skin, transfer the cooked chicken to a baking sheet and broil for 2-3 minutes in the oven before serving.
- The excess liquids in the slow cooker can be used to make a delicious cinnamon-spiced gravy.
2. Cinnamon-Sugar Monkey Bread
- 2 cans refrigerated biscuit dough
- ½ cup white sugar
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 cup brown sugar
- ¾ cup melted butter
- Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease a 10-inch Bundt pan.
- Mix the white sugar and cinnamon in a large Ziploc bag.
- Split the dough into 16 portions and cut each biscuit into quarters.
- Add the biscuits to the plastic bag and shake to coat.
- Empty the coated biscuits into the Bundt pan and arrange in an even layer.
- Fold the brown sugar into the butter and pour onto the biscuits.
- Put the biscuits in the oven and bake for 40-50 minutes or until the biscuits are golden brown. Use a toothpick to check if the middle is cooked as well.
- Allow them to cool for 10 minutes while in the pan.
- Turn the Bundt pan upside down on a serving plate and tap on the bottom to release the cake from the pan.
- Serve warm.
3. Simple Cinnamon Tea
- Combine 1 cup of water for every 1 cinnamon stick in a small saucepan and bring to a boil (4 cinnamon sticks=4 cups water).
- Add any extra flavors you desire. These could include apple slices, lemon juice, orange peels, ginger root, turmeric, and vanilla extract.
- Cover and reduce heat to medium-low.
- Simmer for 15 minutes.
- Remove from heat and strain.
- Sweeten with honey or brown sugar to taste.
Cinnamon is one of the oldest and most widely used spices worldwide. The essential oils in cinnamon bark not only give cinnamon its distinct flavor and aroma but also offer health benefits.
Cinnamon has been used in traditional medicine throughout history. Modern researchers are beginning to recognize its therapeutic potential for a variety of diseases and ailments.