Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.
In the ancient world, cinnamon was more precious than gold and was regarded as a gift fit for monarchs. In fact, Pliny the Elder in the first century AD valued cinnamon at 15 times the value of silver. Nero, emperor of Rome in the first century AD, burned 12 months supply of cinnamon at the funeral of his wife – an extravagant gesture to signify the depth of his loss.
Cinnamon has been used since ancient times both as a culinary spice and for medicinal and other purposes. The ancient Egyptians included cinnamon in their embalming mixture. Moses combined cinnamon, cassia, and other spices with olive oil to anoint the Tabernacle and its furnishings.
During the Middle Ages, the Arabs carried cinnamon and other spices along the old caravan trade routes to Alexandria, Egypt. From there it was shipped to Europe. The Arabs constructed many exotic stories about the great difficulty of harvesting cinnamon to account for its scarcity and justify the high price of the spice.
The name cinnamon is derived from a Greek word meaning sweet wood. It is derived from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree, an evergreen tree of the Laurel family. The rolled bark is allowed to dry, forming a scroll or quill. The quills are cut into 2 to 3 inch sticks or ground into powder. The ground cinnamon has a stronger flavor than the sticks, and can stay fresh for 6 months while the scrolls last longer. Both should be stored in a cool, dark, and dry place.
There are two main varieties of Cinnamon- Cinnamomum verum (True or Ceylon cinnamon) grown in Sri Lanka, and southern India; and Cinnamomum aromaticum (also called Cassia), which is grown in China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. True cinnamon has a yellowish-brown color and tends to produce a finer powder than cassia which has a grayish-brown color. The cinnamon from Sri Lanka, which is preferred by the Europeans, has a milder, sweeter flavor and is more expensive. In the United States cassia is the widely used product. True cinnamon maybe adulterated with cassia.
Cinnamon is used as a flavoring agent in soft drinks, teas, and bakery products such as cereals, granola bars, puddings, pastries, cakes, pies, and donuts. Cinnamon is often added to oatmeal, toast, candy, hot chocolate, tea or coffee, and in chewing gums. Cinnamon is also a common ingredient in many Indian curries. It is also an ingredient in many medicinal formulas to improve the taste and aroma of the medicine. In addition, cinnamon is used in the perfumery industry.
The medical properties of cinnamon were utilized by ancient health practitioners such as Dioscorides and Galen in their various treatments. In medieval times, cinnamon was an ingredient of medicines for sore throats and coughs. Cinnamon has been used to alleviate indigestion, stomach cramps, intestinal spasms, nausea, and flatulence, and to improve the appetite, and treat diarrhea.
A number of additional medicinal properties have been reported for cinnamon. In folk medicine it was used for treating rheumatism and other inflammations. Its mild anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, and anti-clotting properties are believed to be due to its content of cinnamaldehyde. Cinnamon extracts are active against Candida albicans, the fungus responsible for vaginal yeast infection, and also Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium responsible for stomach ulcers. The antimicrobial properties of cinnamon are thought to be due to eugenol and a derivative of cinnamaldehyde.
Cinnamon extracts have also inhibited the growth of cultured tumor cells. This effect may be due to the presence of procyanidins and eugenol in the bark extract. Cinnamon is also useful as a food preservative to inhibit the growth of common food-borne bacteria such as Salmonella and E coli.
Blood Sugar Levels Modified
Cinnamon has been used in Korea and China as a traditional herb for treating people with diabetes. While researchers were investigating the effect of various foods on blood sugar levels, they found that apple pie did not produce the expected rise in blood sugar levels They discovered that the cinnamon content of the pie was protective.
Cinnamon contains some water-soluble polyphenolic polymers derived from the antioxidant catechins. These compounds increase insulin sensitivity by enhancing insulin receptor function and increase glucose uptake. A study involving 60 men and women, average age 52 years, who had type 2 diabetes, were given 1/2 teaspoon a day of cinnamon for 6 weeks. They showed a 25 percent decrease in fasting blood glucose levels as well as a 12 percent drop in blood cholesterol levels and a 30 percent drop in blood triglyceride levels.
Higher dosage levels produced more rapid improvements but the larger amounts did not improve the overall effectiveness over time. In another trial, 22 adults with prediabetes were given 500 mg of a water-soluble cinnamon extract daily for 12 weeks. Without any changes in diet or physical activity, the majority of people experienced about a 10 percent drop in fasting blood sugar, without blood lipid changes. Different cinnamon species may give different results. Cinnamon is also a good source of chromium, an essential trace mineral that augments the action of insulin.
The distinctive odor and flavor of cinnamon is due to cinnamaldehyde, the major oily constituent of cinnamon bark. Since this can be toxic in large doses, a regular use of substantial amounts of ground cinnamon may be unsafe. This problem can be avoided by using a water-soluble cinnamon extract in which the active polyphenolic compounds are retained but the oil constituents are removed.
Cinnamon has been granted GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status as a food additive by the FDA. GRAS substances are considered safe by the experts and not restricted as is the case with other food additives. Pregnant women are advised to avoid taking cinnamon oil or large doses of the bark, since high doses can induce abortion.
There have been reports of contact sensitivity to cinnamon oil and bark, and to cinnamaldehyde in tooth paste and perfumes. In addition, lip swelling and oral lesions are reported among frequent users of cinnamon-flavored chewing gums.