If you’re like our family, you most likely have a bottle of cinnamon spice in the cupboard – and it’s probably close to empty. We seem to go through the spice (and cinnamon essential oil) like we go through a box a Kleenex! Used for centuries in traditional Eastern medicine, this common kitchen spice isn’t just a delicious addition to the kids French toast or a topping on your chai tea — it has a range of impressive health benefits as well.
So what’s so great about cinnamon anyway?
To answer that question, let’s find out a little more about the where it comes from…
A tropical plant
When used as a spice, cinnamon is usually available as a stick or in powdered form. There are actually a few different tree species that are used to make cinnamon, all of them related to each other. Ceylon cinnamon, often called “true” cinnamon, is mainly grown in Sri Lanka while cassia is the variety of cinnamon that is more commonly found in grocery stores and spice cabinets; it’s grown in East and Southeast Asia. Both types need a hot, tropical climate in order to thrive.
While it can be cultivated from the bark of mature trees, most cinnamon today is cultivated from the bark of younger trees, at least two years old before being cut down and covered with soil. New shoots sprout out like a bush, and are then harvested and used to make cinnamon. The inner bark of the shoots is peeled off, dried in the sun, and naturally curled into the cinnamon sticks you see in your cabinet.
Antioxidants are powerful free-radical-fighting components of many of our favorite healthy foods. They’re more commonly referred to when discussing “super foods” like açai or maqui berry, but they’re actually abundant in cinnamon as well! Just one teaspoon of cinnamon has the same amount of antioxidants as a half cup of blueberries, which are famous for being antioxidant powerhouses.
Heart and brain health
Researchers recently found that diets rich in spices like cinnamon and turmeric allowed people to eat fatty meals without experiencing many of the negative side effects. Chemicals called triglycerides usually increase after fatty meals and are known to cause hart disease. These spices reduced those triglycerides by about 30%. Pretty impressive, right?
A NIH study also found that cinnamon makes a substance called sodium benzoate, which helps protect neurons and improve motor function. This may help prevent Parkinson’s disease. Cinnamon actually improves the function of your brain.
There’s evidence that cinnamon helps to ease digestive discomfort. In fact, this has been one of its main uses in traditional medicine. In Ayurvedic medicine, for example, cinnamon is used to balance the digestive system.
Blood sugar regulation
Cinnamon has a positive effect on blood glucose levels. This can be useful for people with diabetes as well as folks who just want to make sure their blood sugar levels remain balanced.
One important thing to note is that different types of cinnamon can have different effects on blood glucose. Cassia cinnamon, which is most often found in stores, has the most evidence behind its effect on blood sugar. This leads me to my next point…
Ceylon cinnamon vs. Cassia cinnamon
The cinnamon that you buy in the store is usually cassia cinnamon. Ceylon, on the other hand, is often referred to as “true” cinnamon; it primarily grows in Sri Lanka and isn’t common in the U.S.
It’s not entirely accurate to call ceylon “true” cinnamon. These two spices are very closely related, and are both in the cinnamon family. They offer many of the same health benefits, and both have been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Cassia is one of the 50 fundamental herbs of traditional Chinese medicine.
These two types of cinnamon have slightly different flavors and chemical compositions. Ceylon has less of a strong taste than cassia, which is perhaps why it’s less common as a food spice.
Cinnamon essential oil
Cinnamon essential oil naturally occurs in cinnamon trees, and is extracted by pounding the bark, macerating it in sea water and then distilling the result. The cozy scent of cinnamon comes from the compound cinnamaldehyde.
Cinnamon essential oil is usually not consumed, although some people use a drop in hot water or tea to help soothe the throat. More often, it’s used for topical or aromatic purposes. For example, it can help soothe aching joints or can be added to a room spray for a naturally calming effect. This is a strong oil that can irritate the skin, so it needs to be diluted properly before use — most applications require just a drop or two.
Cinnamon essential oil is often made from ceylon cinnamon, but you can find cassia essential oil as well. Both have their benefits!
If its familiar spicy taste wasn’t enough to draw you in, maybe knowing more about these amazing health benefits will convince you to incorporate more cinnamon into your diet.
If you’ve been neglecting Cinnamon, there’s plenty of great recipes out there so you won’t have a problem incorporating more of this spice into your culinary routine, and since it’s also available as an essential oil it’s super-easy to simply add a drop to your morning coffee, or toss the spice into that cup of winter-time hot cocoa to make it even more comforting and cozy.