Cinnamon is a well-know spice with a sweet, woody scent. It is derived from the brown bark of cinnamon trees and native to Sri Lanka. Historical records mentioned cinnamon as early as 2000 B.C., and it is even referenced in Biblical texts.
Spices were so highly revered hundreds of years ago that nations went to war over them. In 1518, the Portuguese invaded the island kingdom of Kotto in Sri Lanka, seizing the cinnamon trade. This caused the kingdom of Kandy to join forces with the Dutch to drive out the Portuguese, giving them control of the cinnamon industry for the next 150 years.
Cinnamon is made by cutting the stems of cinnamon trees. Cinnamon and cassia are the two most common types of cinnamon. Both come from the bark of a plant in the laurel family which can grow up to 30 feet tall, but most farms keep them short and bushy to make harvesting easier. After three years, the bark is peeled from the trees during the rainy season and left to dry and ferment for 24 hours. Then the outer layer of the bark is scraped off, leaving the inner, light-covered bark, which curls into quills as it dries. These rolls are called cinnamon sticks. These sticks can be ground to form cinnamon powder. Removal of the outer bark makes the cinnamon less biting and mellows the aroma.
The distinct smell and flavor of cinnamon are due to the oily part, which is very high in the compound cinnamaldehyde. Scientists believe that this compound is responsible for most of cinnamon’s powerful effects on health and metabolism. Studies show that cinnamaldehyde fights some infections. Cinnamon oil has been shown to effectively treat respiratory tract infections caused by fungi. It can also inhibit the growth of certain bacteria, including Listeria and Salmonella. The antimicrobial effects of cinnamon may also help prevent tooth decay and reduce bad breath.
When researchers tested the effects of just a few drops of cinnamon oil on 3 ounces of refrigerated carrot broth, the growth of the foodborne pathogenic Bacillus cereus was inhibited for 60 days. But the B. cereus flourished in the same amount of carrot broth without the cinnamon, despite refrigeration.
This antimicrobial effect was known to the ancient Egyptians, who used cinnamon in their mummification processes.
A tablespoon of cinnamon provides 4.14 grams of fiber, as well as 33.6 grams of potassium and 1.36 grams of manganese.
Manganese is a trace mineral that acts as a cofactor for enzymatic reactions crucial to development, digestion, reproduction, antioxidant defense, energy production, immune response and regulation of neuronal activities. It also helps promote blood clotting and support the growth of your bones and connective tissues.
Cinnamon is also a component of the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase, which helps neutralize free radicals that can damage cell membranes and DNA. Adequate levels of manganese have been linked to the management of diabetes, epilepsy and even premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Additionally, cinnamon has been used as a coagulant to help reduce bleeding, as well as an insect repellant.
One study found that cinnamon may help reduce blood glucose concentration and enhance insulin sensitivity in normal-weight and obese adults. Numerous human studies have confirmed the anti-diabetic effects of cinnamon, showing that it can lower fasting blood sugar levels by 10–29%
Apart from the beneficial effects on insulin resistance, cinnamon can lower blood sugar by several other mechanisms. First, cinnamon has been shown to decrease the amount of glucose that enters your bloodstream after a meal. It does this by interfering with numerous digestive enzymes, which slows the breakdown of carbohydrates in your digestive tract. Second, a compound in cinnamon can act on cells by mimicking insulin. This greatly improves glucose uptake by your cells, though it acts much slower than insulin itself.
The effective dose of cinnamon is typically 1–6 grams or around 0.5–2 teaspoons of cinnamon per day.
Two compounds found in cinnamon appear to inhibit the buildup of a protein called tau in the brain, which is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. In a study in mice with Parkinson’s disease, cinnamon helped protect neurons, normalized neurotransmitter levels and improved motor function.
Scientists also reported that cinnamon could be used as a potent chemopreventive drug in cervical cancer, and may be a promising strategy for cancer prevention. Cinnamon inhibits tumor growth. The report concluded that cinnamon extract induced apoptosis (death) in cervical cancer cells. Cinnamon acts by reducing the growth of cancer cells and the formation of blood vessels in tumors and appears to be toxic to cancer cells, causing cell death.
A study in mice with colon cancer revealed that cinnamon is a potent activator of detoxifying enzymes in the colon, protecting against further cancer growth.
How to Buy
Not all cinnamon is created equal. There are two types: Ceylon cinnamon, produced in Sri Lanka, and cassia cinnamon, coming mainly from China, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
The Cassia variety contains significant amounts of a compound called coumarin, which is believed to be harmful in large doses. All cinnamon have health benefits, but Cassia may cause problems in large doses due to the coumarin content.
Ceylon (“true” cinnamon) is much better in this regard, and studies show that it’s much lower in coumarin than the Cassia variety. True cinnamon is tan in color with a warm, sweet flavor, whereas ground cassia is a reddish brown, usually coarser in texture, with a more bitter, stronger flavor and a more aromatic bouquet.
Unfortunately, most cinnamon found in supermarkets is the cheaper Cassia variety.
How to Store
Store powder or quills (sticks) in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. It is best to buy small quantities of ground cinnamon as it quickly becomes stale, losing flavor and aroma. Grind your own from cinnamon quills using a spice or coffee grinder for best flavor or use whole cinnamon quills.
How to Cook
Cinnamon is well-known ingredient in many and baked dishes, but it is also an interesting addition to marinades, beverages, and dressings.
In Mexico, cinnamon is added as a flavoring too. Most exclusive liqueurs contain cinnamon, as do various bitters.
Cinnamon oil is pressed from cinnamon and cassia waste-products (usually the outer bark) for use in cosmetics and drugs.