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As a holistic nutritionist, I know that a well-balanced diet complete with healthy fats, protein, fibre, and complex carbohydrates is a pillar of joyous health. However, I also love learning about the common herbs and spices we keep in our pantries that are full of healing benefits. I’ve previously shared everything you need to know about ginger, turmeric, and maca. Today I want to highlight one of my favourite and most used spices: cinnamon!
Many of my dessert and smoothie recipes include cinnamon because it adds a natural sweetness without adding sugar or calories. I love it because it can be sprinkled on top of just about anything, from smoothies to juices, or incorporated into recipes such as my Baked Apple Cinnamon Pancakes!
This post covers everything you need to know about cinnamon including what it is, 7 powerful health benefits, how to choose the best quality cinnamon, and lots of yummy recipes to support your health, naturally.
What Is Cinnamon?
Cinnamon is a beautifully aromatic spice that comes from the bark of the Cinnamonum genus of trees. The amazing and distinct scent of cinnamon comes from the essential oil cinnamaldehyde and other beneficial constituents, including eugenol. They contribute the unique flavour of cinnamon and, as we’ll see below, they have some impressive health benefits.
This incredible spice has been used since about 2800 BC for medicinal and spiritual practices. To make cinnamon, the stems are cut from the cinnamon tree and the inner bark is extracted. Once the inner bark dries, it curls up, which creates the distinct cinnamon sticks you’ll see at the grocery store. These sticks can be ground up to make cinnamon powder.
Much like ginger, it has a distinct flavour that tastes amazing in both sweet and savoury dishes, which make it a super versatile kitchen staple. You can use either powdered cinnamon or cinnamon sticks, depending on the recipe. I love simmering cinnamon sticks with some orange peel during the holidays for a natural way to make my house smell festive.
What is the Difference Between Ceylon (True) Cinnamon and Cassia Cinnamon?
True cinnamon (ceylon) and the other cheaper varieties of cinnamon actually come from a completely different species of tree. True cinnamon is typically produced in Sri Lanka, India, Madagascar, Brazil, or the Caribbean, while its false cousin is usually grown in either China, Indonesia, or Vietnam.
Another difference is in appearance and flavour. While the cinnamon we’re used to seeing on the grocery store shelves is typically dark reddish brown and tastes quite spicy, true cinnamon is much lighter in colour and has a lighter, brighter, and slightly sweeter flavour.
Finally, the biggest and most relevant difference between the varieties of cinnamon is the content of a compound called coumarin. Ceylon cinnamon contains about 0.017 g/kg while other types of cinnamon contain from 2.15-6.97 g/kg of coumarin.
This compound is a blood thinner and anticoagulant, so it is not recommended for those already on medications such as Warfarin. In addition to its effect on the blood, studies have also found that coumarin can be toxic to the liver when we consume above the tolerable daily intake, which is set at 0.1mg/kg of body weight.
That means for someone who weighs 68 kg they would have a TDI of 6.8mg/day. Since one gram of cinnamon can contain between 2.15-6.97mg of coumarin, you could be reaching that upper limit by consuming about 1/2 of a tsp per day. If you want to take cinnamon for health benefits you’ll likely be taking a bit more than this, so it’s best to stick with Ceylon cinnamon, just to be safe. Your liver does a lot for you, so show it some love by treating it to the best quality spices!
Top 7 Health Benefits of Cinnamon
Now that you know the differences between the types of cinnamon on the shelf let's take a look at the incredible health benefits and nutrients contained in this super spice.
1. Powerful Anti-Inflammatory
Inflammaging is defined as chronic inflammation that accelerates the aging process. It is associated with chronic diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, atherosclerosis, heart disease, type II diabetes, and cancer. From the outside, it's associated with declining skin structure and function (aka aging skin). However, incorporating cinnamon into your daily routine can help prevent signs of internal and external aging thanks to its potent effects on inflammatory and oxidative compounds in the body. In fact, it has been found to lower specific markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein!
2. Helps Prevent Brain Degeneration
Supporting brain health into older age is a crucial component of joyous health. Luckily, research suggests that those amazing anti-inflammatory benefits of cinnamon may be protective against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Since this disease is becoming increasingly prevalent in North America, learning that certain common foods can provide neuroprotective benefits is incredibly empowering!
3. Helps Balance Blood Sugar
One of the main pillars of joyous health is maintaining stable blood sugar as often as possible. In fact I recently tracked my blood sugar over two weeks to see how certain foods and practices impact my glucose spikes. You can follow along here, here, and here.
While enjoying a balanced diet of healthy whole foods that includes protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs is a great place to start, adding in functional foods such as cinnamon can help keep your blood sugar stable.
Adding functional foods to your diet, such as cinnamon, can help keep your blood sugar stable!
If you suffer from prediabetes, Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, or PCOS cinnamon can be a true lifesaver! It has been shown in studies that even small amounts, as little as ½ tsp/day, can help lower your fasting glucose levels, HbA1C, and blood pressure by improving your insulin response.
4. May Support Heart Health
Heart disease is the leading cause of death around the world so anything that we can incorporate into our lives to help support this important muscle is beneficial! Several studies have outlined the specific heart-healthy benefits of this tasty little spice. When consumed consistently for at least 8 weeks, cinnamon was found to lower blood pressure.
Another review found that supplementing with about ¾ of a tsp of cinnamon helped lower triglycerides, total cholesterol, and blood sugar in people with metabolic diseases. Incorporating cinnamon into your daily routine is a simple and delicious way to support heart health!
5. May Have Antibacterial & Antifungal Effects
The cinnamaldehyde mentioned above may help protect against various infections thanks to its antibacterial and antifungal effects. While more human studies are needed, promising test-tube research has found that this compound can help kill some fungi that are responsible for respiratory tract infections.
6. May Have Antiviral Effects
Viruses are responsible for many of the frustrating colds and flus we experience throughout the year. I love turning to nature to help support my immune system when it comes to warding off and recovering from viral infections. That’s where cinnamon comes in! Certain studies have found that the phenolic compounds in cinnamon may be protective against certain viruses, specifically those that cause influenza.
7. Rich in Nutrients
Cinnamon is a great source of manganese, which is a trace mineral that you need in order to build healthy bones and properly metabolism fats and carbs. Cinnamon also contains fibre to help digestion, calcium for strong bones, and iron for energy production. That’s a lot of nutrition hiding in a delicious package!
How to Shop for High Quality Cinnamon
In my previous posts on turmeric and ginger I wrote about the importance of buying organic herbs and spices to avoid contamination with endocrine disrupting pesticides. To ensure you’re getting the health benefits and avoiding any toxins, it’s best to shop for organic cinnamon if possible.
I also have a few other joyous tips to help you shop for the best quality Ceylon cinnamon:
1. Look for cinnamon that is labeled as either:
2. Buy organic cinnamon to prevent contamination with pesticides and other fillers or preservatives. Organic herbs and spices also should not be irradiated at the border.
3. If you’re buying the bark, true cinnamon “sticks” will often curl in a circle, instead of in the characteristic two-curled stick.
4. Ceylon cinnamon is often a lighter brown colour and more powdery and fluffy than conventional cassia cinnamon.
5. It will usually be more expensive. This isn’t always the best indicator, but when combined with a couple of the other points above it can be helpful.
I hope this information inspires you to start incorporating cinnamon into your recipes! It’s such an affordable way to increase nutrient-density of your meals while supporting blood sugar balance and warding off inflammaging.