As the weather turns cooler, I know it’s time use the warming spices of the season.
Cinnamon is a great way to add a touch of sweetness to my recipes without spiking my blood sugar. The fragrant, sweet and warm taste of cinnamon is a perfect spice to use during the cold months.
Cinnamon is one of the oldest spices known. It was mentioned in the Bible and was used in ancient Egypt not only as a beverage flavoring and medicine, but also as an embalming agent.
Cinnamon is the brownish-reddish inner bark of the cinnamon tree, which when dried, rolls into a tubular form known as a quill. Cinnamon is available in either its whole quill form (cinnamon sticks) or as ground powder. All types of cinnamon belong to the same family of plants, called the Lauraceae family.
2 varieties of Cinnamon
Although related, Ceylon cinnamon and Cassia are not obtained the same plant.
Cinnamomum burmannii, also referred to as “Cassia Cinnamons”, Indonesian cinnamon, Indonesian cassia, or Java cinnamon accounts for over 90% of the cinnamon imported into the U.S. between 2008-2013. If you are consuming a cinnamon-flavored produce, it is most likely to have been flavored with this species of cinnamon. Cassia-type cinnamons include the following:
- Cinnamomum burmannii, commonly called Indonesian Cinnamon, Indonesian Cassia, or Java Cinnamon
- Cinnamomum cassia, also known as Cinnamomum aromaticum,and commonly called Chinese Cinnamon or Chinese Cassia
- Cinnamomum loureiroi, commonly called Vietnamese Cinnamon, Vietnamese Cassia, Saigon Cinnamon, or Saigon Cassia
Another species of Cinnamon called Ceylon cinnamon or Sri Lanka Cinnamon is long valued in both culinary and herbal medicine traditions. Sri Lanka is an island country in the Indian Ocean, just off the southeast tip of India, and it was formerly known as Ceylon. The science names for Ceylon Cinnamon are Cinnamomum zeylanicum and Cinnamomum verum. The word “verum” in this species name comes from the Latin word verus for “true,” and is connected with the reason that you also hear this species of cinnamon being referred to as “true cinnamon.”
What’s the difference?
Ceylon cinnamon is typically more expensive than any of the Cassia versions. They share many characteristics.
What true cinnamon and cassia do not have in common is their coumarin content. Coumarins are naturally occurring plant components that can have strong anticoagulant properties. Because our blood needs to maintain its ability to coagulate in times of injury, excessive intake of coumarins over a prolonged period of time can pose health risks. While the level of naturally occurring coumarins in Ceylon cinnamon appears to be very small and lower than the amount that could cause health risks, the level of naturally occurring coumarins in the cassia cinnamons appears to be higher and may pose a risk to some individuals if consumed in substantial amounts on a regular basis. For this reason, organizations like the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin, Germany have recommended that large amounts of the Cassia cinnamons be avoided.
Unfortunately, there is no way to tell the difference between cinnamon powders that have been made from Ceylon cinnamon versus the Cassia cinnamons. If you are buying cinnamon powder to use in a recipe, I recommend purchasing a cinnamon product that identifies the source of its cinnamon or calling the manufacturer to obtain this information.
In the case of stick cinnamon, however, there is one feature of the sticks you might want to look for in order to determine whether your cinnamon is true cinnamon or Cassia cinnamon. That feature involves the texture of the sticks when you look downward at a stick so that you can see the end. When cinnamon sticks are rolled from the thick bark of the Cassia plants, they look exactly as described – a one-piece, thick bark layer that does not show multiple layers of any kind. In the case of Ceylon cinnamon sticks (true cinnamon), since the plant bark is thinner, you may be able to see multiple layers of a thinner bark. That thinner layering of bark is one indication that your cinnamon sticks are made from true cinnamon.
Cinnamon sticks can easily be ground or crushed in your coffee or spice grinder.
These are other feature that differentiate the two kinds of cinnamons.
Reduce Blood Pressure
Cinnamon appears to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, which may contribute to its potential to decrease blood pressure. Inflammation is common characteristic of high blood pressure. Free radicals and oxidative stress, in particular, are known to frequently induce metabolic syndrome, result in insulin resistance, which is a precursor to high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Two compounds found in cinnamon called trans-cinnamaldehyde and p-cymene have anti-inflammatory properties. They inhibit the synthesis of inflammatory biomarkers. This effectively stops inflammation before it starts and may help prevent the development of high blood pressure.
Cinnamon exhibits strong cholesterol-reducing effect in addition to lowering blood pressure and insulin levels.
Cinnamaldehyde (also called cinnamic aldehyde) has been well-researched for its effects on blood platelets. Platelets are constituents of blood that are meant to clump together under emergency circumstances (like physical injury) as a way to stop bleeding, but under normal circumstances, they can make blood flow inadequate if they clump together too much. The cinnaldehyde in cinnamon helps prevent unwanted clumping of blood platelets.
Cinnamon has been studied for its ability to help stop the growth of bacteria as well as fungi, including the commonly problematic yeast Candida. In laboratory tests, growth of yeasts that were resistant to the commonly used anti-fungal medication fluconazole was often (though not always) stopped by cinnamon extracts.
Cinnamon’s antimicrobial properties are so effective that recent research demonstrates this spice can be used as an alternative to traditional food preservatives.
Blood Sugar Stabilizer
Seasoning a high carb food with cinnamon can help lessen its impact on your blood sugar levels. Cinnamon slows the rate at which the stomach empties after meals, reducing the rise in blood sugar after eating. Researchers measured how quickly the stomach emptied after 14 healthy subjects ate 300 grams (1.2 cups) of rice pudding alone or seasoned with 6 grams (1.2 teaspoons) of cinnamon. Adding cinnamon to the rice pudding lowered the gastric emptying rate from 37% to 34.5% and significantly lessened the rise in blood sugar levels after eating.
Cinnamon may also significantly help people with type 2 diabetes improve their ability to respond to insulin, thus normalizing their blood sugar levels. Both test tube and animal studies have shown that compounds in cinnamon not only stimulate insulin receptors, but also inhibit an enzyme that inactivates them, thus significantly increasing cells’ ability to use glucose. Studies to confirm cinnamon’s beneficial actions in humans are currently underway with the most recent report coming from researchers from the US Agricultural Research Service, who have shown that less than half a teaspoon per day of cinnamon reduces blood sugar levels in persons with type 2 diabetes. Their study included 60 Pakistani volunteers with type 2 diabetes who were not taking insulin. Subjects were divided into six groups. For 40 days, groups 1, 2 and 3 were given 1, 3, or 6 grams per day of cinnamon while groups 4, 5 and 6 received placebo capsules. Even the lowest amount of cinnamon, 1 gram per day (approximately 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon), produced an approximately 20% drop in blood sugar; cholesterol and triglycerides were lowered as well. When daily cinnamon was stopped, blood sugar levels began to increase.
Just smelling the wonderful odor of this sweet spice boosts brain activity! Research led by Dr. P. Zoladz and presented April 24, 2004, at the annual meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences, in Sarasota, FL, found that chewing cinnamon flavored gum or just smelling cinnamon enhanced study participants’ cognitive processing. Specifically, cinnamon improved participants’ scores on tasks related to attentional processes, virtual recognition memory, working memory, and visual-motor speed while working on a computer-based program. Participants were exposed to four odorant conditions: no odor, peppermint odor, jasmine, and cinnamon, with cinnamon emerging the clear winner in producing positive effects on brain function. Encouraged by the results of these studies, researchers will be evaluating cinnamon’s potential for enhancing cognition in the elderly, individuals with test-anxiety, and possibly even patients with diseases that lead to cognitive decline.
In traditional Chinese Medicine cinnamon has been used to provide relief when faced with the onset of a cold or flu, especially when mixed in a tea with some fresh ginger.
How worried should I be?
I do not see a reason to worry about it and avoid the Cassia forms of this spice when consumed on this limited basis without knowing. It is good to be aware of its drawbacks. However, if you are an avid cinnamon lover, you crave the sweet taste of the true cinnamon vs the pungent taste of Cassia, and likely to consume large amounts of cinnamon, I recommend Ceylon cinnamon (true cinnamon) as your best choice.
Small things can make a huge difference. Hope this was empowering. Would love to hear how you use cinnamon in your meals.
Here are a few recipes that incorporate the healing properties of cinnamon.
Check out the video tutorial for this delicious alternative drink.
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Dugoua JJ, Seely D, Perri D, et al. From type 2 diabetes to antioxidant activity: a systematic review of the safety and efficacy of common and cassia cinnamon bark. Can J Physiol Pharmacol 2007;85(9):837-47. 2007.
Mang B, Wolters M, Schmitt B, et al. Effects of a cinnamon extract on plasma glucose, HbA, and serum lipids in diabetes mellitus type 2. Eur J Clin Invest 2006;36(5):340-4. 2006.
Matan N, Rimkeeree H, Mawson AJ, et al. Antimicrobial activity of cinnamon and clove oils under modified atmosphere conditions. Int J Food Microbiol 2006;107(2):180-5. 2006.
Vanschoonbeek K, Thomassen BJ, Senden JM,. Cinnamon supplementation does not improve glycemic control in postmenopausal type 2 diabetes patients. J Nutr 2006;136(4):977-80. 2006.
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Special thanks to Sayer Ji’s relentless research on this and many healthful topics.
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