The fragrant bark of the cinnamon tree is today a common—even mundane—spice found on grocery shelves across America. Given its ubiquity, it's hard to believe that the fine russet powder casually dashed on morning oatmeal or toast was once considered more precious than gold itself. Coveted in Egypt and China as far back as 2000 B.C., cinnamon became so sought after in Europe in the 15th century that the search for the sweet spice prompted the explorations that led to the discovery of America. Though cinnamon became taken for granted as its cultivation spread throughout the world, scientists in the past decade have found a new pot of gold in its promising health benefits, most notably the impact on blood sugar control, cholesterol and certain cancers.
In a study conducted in Pakistan, participants with Type 2 diabetes who consumed less that half a teaspoon of cinnamon daily for 40 days reduced their blood sugar, cholesterol and triglyceride levels by 20 percent. The blood sugar benefits likely resulted from cinnamon's ability to mimic the activity of insulin. In animal studies, researchers have demonstrated that cinnamon can prevent insulin resistance even with the consumption of a high-fructose diet. Eating cinnamon with high carbohydrate foods can mitigate the subsequent spike in blood sugar. Thus, in addition to alleviating Type 2 diabetes, the spice can stave off the sugar metabolism impairments that are precursors to the disease.
For such a delicate seasoning, cinnamon certainly packs a nutritional punch. It is an excellent source of the trace mineral manganese. Just one teaspoon has 28 mg of calcium, 1 mg of iron and 1 g of fiber. This consortium of nutrients may account for cinnamon's cholesterol-lowering properties. Cinnamon's calcium and fiber can bind together to remove compounds known as bile salts. When this occurs, the body breaks down cholesterol to produce new bile, thereby decreasing cholesterol levels in the body. Bile salts can also damage colon cells, so cinnamon may provide increased protection against colon cancer. Its compounds have potent antioxidant effects, too. A recent USDA study found that cinnamon stemmed the growth of leukemia and lymphoma cancer cells.
One of the essential oils found in cinnamon bark, cinnamaldehyde, which gives cinnamon its characteristically warm flavor, is also a natural blood thinner and anti-inflammatory. Cinnamon's anti-clotting action has proven so significant that individuals taking prescription blood thinners should not consume it in therapeutic doses. The anti-inflammatory properties of the spice may account for its benefit to arthritis sufferers; a study conducted at Copenhagen University showed that consuming half a teaspoon of cinnamon with one tablespoon of honey every morning before breakfast relieves arthritis pain.
- may help reduce blood sugar
- provides mineral manganese, iron, calcium and fiber
- may provide increased protection against colon cancer
- acts as a natural blood thinner and anti-inflammatory
- inhibits the growth of food borne bacteria
Though sweet to taste, cinnamon can be venom for pathogenic bacteria, fungi and even pesky insects. Since the spice inhibits the growth of food-borne bacteria, it is a natural alternative to food preservatives. Its antimicrobial power means death for H. pylori, the bacteria responsible for stomach ulcers, as well as harmful Candida (yeast). In fact, some yeast that are resistant to conventional medications like fluconazole can be wiped out by cinnamon. Cinnamon’s potential to eliminate harmful microorganisms may explain its benefit as a digestive tonic; traditional Indian and Chinese medicine recommend cinnamon for nausea, diarrhea and constipation. Also a natural insect repellant, cinnamon has proven more effective at killing mosquito larvae than common pesticides.
As if its benefits for your body weren't enough incentive to start sprinkling more cinnamon into your meals, studies suggest that it's good for your mind, too. Simply chewing cinnamon-flavored gum or smelling cinnamon boosts brain activity. In one study, smelling or tasting cinnamon increased participants’ scores on a variety of cognitive processing tasks. Such lab findings square with the wisdom of ancient Chinese medicine, which recommends cinnamon to improve energy, vitality and circulation (not to mention cold feet).
Though Americans typically use cinnamon as an accompaniment to sweet tastes of the holiday season like apple pie and mulled red wine, cuisine in cultures the world over makes use of cinnamon year round in savory dishes. To add more of the spice to your diet, simply follow the spice trail to Middle Eastern lamb and chicken dishes or Indian curries. We promise it will spice up your life (and health), too.
(Updated: 09/24/12 SG)