Cinnamon is one of the world’s most popular spices, sprinkled on lattes, boiled with ciders and enjoyed in numerous dishes. Without it, Thanksgiving and Christmas meals might well become tasteless and definitely less fragrant.
Harvested from the inner bark of a tropical evergreen plant, cinnamon has been used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat respiratory and digestive problems for centuries. Ancient Egyptians used cinnamon as a perfume during the embalming process, while Romans used it in funeral pyres to mask the stench of burning flesh.
The Bible mentions cinnamon several times, most commonly as a way to perfume bedding, clothes and anointing oil. The essential oil form is made from the bark, leaves or twigs of the plant.
But it’s cinnamon’s use as a medicinal agent that has scientists buzzing, trying to determine just how well its antioxidant capabilities might work to better our health.
“Medicine started as herbs and plants,” said Lauri Wright, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “So it almost comes full circle, as we’re now going back and proving what some of these plant substances may do for health.”
Not all cinnamon is created equal
There are two basic types of cinnamon. Ceylon, or Cinnamomum verum, is grown in Sri Lanka. C. cassia, C. loureiroi and C. burmannii, communally known as cassia, are widely produced in China and Indonesia. Cassia has the stronger flavor and odor of the two and, due to its much lower cost, is what we buy in the store to sprinkle on our food.
But it’s the more expensive Ceylon version, with a milder, sweeter flavor, that might be the best for your health.
Cassia can contain relatively high concentrations of coumarin, a plant compound that can damage the liver. A study of 91 cinnamon samples from various stores in Germany found 63 times more coumarin in cassia cinnamon powder than Ceylon powder. Cassia sticks, which look like a thick layer of rolled bark, also contained 18 times more coumarin than Ceylon sticks, which have thin layers.
“A challenge with some of these herbal solutions, because they are not a regulated drug, is that you don’t know exactly what you are getting,” said registered dietitian Melinda Maryniuk, who serves on the professional practice committee for the American Diabetes Association. “A lot of things affect the makeup of the product: where it’s grown, the soil, growing conditions, even how the spice was stored and dried.”
That problem also plagues research on cinnamon. Scientists have used different doses, species and compounds of the spice for their research.
“The doses have varied greatly among the studies, from less than 1 gram to levels that would be toxic in humans,” Wright said. “The duration of taking the capsules has also varied greatly. That’s the problem with translation of all of this work. Even when we find positive results, how do we come up with the correct compounding and dosage for maximum safety?”
Keep that in mind as you read on about where science stands on cinnamon.
SOURCE: Sandee LaMotte