Cinnamon is a small tree that grows in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Brazil, Vietnam, and Egypt.
It's one of the oldest known spices. To prepare it, the bark of the cinnamon tree is dried and rolled into cinnamon sticks, also called quills. Cinnamon can also be dried and ground into a powder.
The characteristic flavor and aroma of cinnamon comes from a compound in the essential oil of the bark called cinnamonaldehyde.
Related: Cinnamon Essential Oil.
Although there are four main varieties of cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon and Cassia cinnamon are the most popular.
Ceylon cinnamon is sometimes called true cinnamon. It is more expensive and has a sweet taste. The quills are softer and can be easily ground in a coffee grinder. Ceylon cinnamon is sold in specialty stores.
Most cinnamon sold in supermarkets in North America comes from the less expensive variety, Cassia cinnamon. It has a darker color and the quills are harder. Unlike Ceylon cinnamon, it can't be easily ground into a powder using a coffee grinder.
How Is It Used?
Besides using it in cooking, cinnamon is also thought to have health benefits.
In traditional Chinese medicine, Cassia cinnamon is used for colds, flatulence, nausea, diarrhea, and painful menstrual periods. It's also believed to improve energy, vitality, and circulation and be particularly useful for people who tend to feel hot in their upper body but have cold feet.
Related: Ayurvedic Type Quiz
It's a common ingredient in chai tea, and it is believed to improve the digestion of fruit, milk and other dairy products.
Research on Cinnamon for Health
Recent studies have found that cinnamon may have a beneficial effect on blood sugar.
One of the first human studies was published in 2003 in a medical journal called Diabetes Care. Sixty people with type 2 diabetes took 1, 3, or 6 grams of cinnamon in pill form daily, an amount roughly equivalent to one quarter of a teaspoon to 1 teaspoon of cinnamon.
After 40 days, all 3 amounts of cinnamon reduced fasting blood glucose by 18 to 29%, triglycerides by 23 to 30%, LDL cholesterol by 7 to 27%, and total cholesterol by 12 to 26%.
For more information about cinnamon and diabetes, read Cinnamon for Diabetes.
Preliminary lab and animal studies have found that cinnamon may have antibacterial and antifungal properties. It's active against Candida albicans, the fungus that causes yeast infections and thrush, and Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria responsible for stomach ulcers.
Safety of Cinnamon
People taking diabetes medication or any medication that affects blood glucose or insulin levels shouldn't take therapeutic doses of cinnamon unless they're under a doctor's supervision. Taking them together may have an additive effect and cause blood glucose levels to dip too low.
Also, people who have been prescribed medication to manage their blood sugar should not reduce or discontinue their dose and take cinnamon instead, especially without speaking with a doctor. Improperly treated diabetes can lead to serious complications, such as heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and nerve damage.
Cassia cinnamon, the kind of cinnamon normally found in grocery stores and in supplement form, naturally contains a compound called coumarin. Coumarin is also found in other plants such as celery, chamomile, sweet clover, and parsley.
At high levels, coumarin can damage the liver. Coumarin can also have a "blood-thinning" effect, so cassia cinnamon supplements shouldn't be taken with prescription anti-clotting medication, such as Coumadin (warfarin), or by people with bleeding disorders.
Cinnamon can also be found in a concentrated oil form that comes from cinnamon bark. Some of these products are not intended for consumption, but instead are used for aromatherapy essential oils. Also, the oil is highly potent and an overdose can depress the central nervous system. People should not take the oil to treat a condition unless under the close supervision of a qualified health professional.
Pregnant women should avoid excessive amounts of cinnamon and shouldn't take it as a supplement.
Khan A, Safdar M, Ali Khan MM, Khattak KN, Anderson RA. Cinnamon improves glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 26.12 (2003): 3215-3218.
Verspohl EJ, Bauer K, Neddermann E. Antidiabetic effect of Cinnamomum cassia and Cinnamomum zeylanicum in vivo and in vitro. Phytotherapy Research. 19.3 (2005): 203-206.