Focus On: Cinnamon

Sugar and Spice, and Everything…Healthy?
By Amy Vergin

Cinnamon is all around us, especially when the air becomes chilled. We use it in our baked goods, in our hot chocolates, even on our children’s cereal. But did you know that cinnamon is the oldest spice known and one of the strongest antioxidants?

What is Cinnamon?

Cinnamomum zeylanicum (or Cinnamomum verum) comes from the bark of a tree native to China, India, and Southeast Asia. Once the bark has been removed from the tree, the cinnamon can come either in ground form or “quill,” commonly known as cinnamon sticks.

Two forms of cinnamon exist, but most people—especially those in North America—are unaware of the different varieties. The first, known as Ceylon, tends to be slightly sweeter and more refined than the traditional cinnamon sold at local markets. Ceylon is actually referred to as the “true cinnamon” because the flavor is enhanced.

Chinese cinnamon is the more common version. The flavor is similar to that of Ceylon with its warm and sweet taste and rich fragrance, but the quality is not as high. Actually, Chinese cinnamon is a spice called cassia, a close relative of cinnamon, yet it’s sold as the powdered cinnamon we see on a daily basis. You can find the true cinnamon by heading to your nearest ethnic food or local spice store.

Cinnamon Bird?

References to cinnamon go back millennia—the Bible mentions cinnamon throughout the Old and New Testaments, usually for holy ointments or perfumes. The Egyptians got creative with it, using this spice for extra flavor in their beverages and also as an embalming agent! During Medieval times, cinnamon was known to be one of the most relied-upon spices. And in China, the earliest Chinese botanical medicine books (dated around 2700 BC) mention cinnamon in the text.

Ancient societies used cinnamon to heal bronchitis, to help cure gastrointestinal problems, loss of appetite, and even to help diabetics control their blood sugar.

The ancients believed cinnamon birds lived in Arabia. Legend has it that the birds would use cinnamon to build their nests. No one knew where the bird flew to get this delicious spice, but everyone wanted a piece. In the end, the Arabians would lure the birds with large chunks of meat. The unknowing bird would eventually bring the meat to the nest, causing it to break under the weight and fall like rain to the people waiting underneath. Whether or not there was such a bird, the popularity of cinnamon has yet to cease.

What About Today?

Though embalmers no longer buy cinnamon in bulk, the spice still plays a big part in our lives today. Cinnamon contains three different types of essential oils, with the active components cinnamaldehyde, cinnamyl acetate, and cinnamyl alcohol. With one teaspoon of cinnamon, your body receives iron, manganese, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin K, and even a gram of fiber!

All of these much needed oils and nutrients give quite a healthy boost to our system. Cinnamon’s benefits are:

Anti-clotting: Cinnaldehyde, part of the essential oils, prevents clumping of blood platelets in your body.

Anti-microbial: Cinnamon is considered an anti-microbial food, meaning that it’s been known to help stop the growth of bacteria and fungi. A 2003 study in International Journal of Food Microbiology showed that when you add a few drops of cinnamon’s essential oils to carrot broth, the cinnamon acted as an effective preservative and actually improved the flavor of the broth as well.

Controls blood sugar: Studies have shown that if you season foods high in carbohydrates, it can actually lessen the impact it has on your blood sugar levels. This tends to be most effective for people with type 2 diabetes because it also improves their ability to respond to insulin.

Brain function: The sweet scent of cinnamon actually boosts brainpower. Phillip Zoladz, PhD, MA, BA, presented research in 2004 at the Association for Chemoreception Sciences showing that chewing cinnamon-flavored gum, or simply smelling cinnamon, enhanced the participant’s cognitive processing.

Anti-parasitic: Cinnamon contains anti-parasitic properties, which helps eliminate head lice without having to buy a chemical-based product.

Different healing traditions also have a variety of uses for this wonder spice. Ayurveda, the ancient healing system of India, uses cinnamon to stimulate circulation and increase the rate at which other herbs are absorbed. Ayurvedic healers can prescribe different remedies based on the three doshas, vata (wind), pitta (bile), and kapha (pleghm). It is said that cinnamon works best for those who are labeled as a kapha or a vata because of its heating and energizing effects.

Similar to Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) values cinnamon for its warming quality and the energy it gives. Most TCM doctors prescribe cinnamon along with another substance such as ginger to help ward off colds, but healers will prescribe the spice on its own to help with disorders relating to the kidney.

How Do I Use it?

The beauty of cinnamon is that it’s available all year round, though its popularity spikes in the winter months when people are looking for its warming effects.

Cinnamon stays fresh for quite some time—if stored properly, ground cinnamon will last for at least six months, while the quill can last up to a year. Refrigerating either of the forms can preserve the cinnamon much longer. Keep either type tightly sealed in a glass container in a cool, dark, dry place. Smell your cinnamon before use—if it still has a sweet smell to it, then you know it is still fresh enough to use.

Since cinnamon has been around for quite a long time, and because it has such a warm and sweet taste, people have found endless uses for this spice in their foods and drinks. Some quick and easy serving ideas for cinnamon are:

>> Add some spice to your warmed cider with cinnamon sticks.

>> Give your family cinnamon toast with a healthy twist by adding flaxseed oil, cinnamon, and honey on whole wheat toast.

>> Simmer cinnamon sticks with soymilk and honey for a warm and fragrant beverage.

>> Add cinnamon to black beans to put in your burritos or nachos. The spice will give it a unique and flavorful taste.

>> Sauté lamb with eggplant, raisins, and cinnamon sticks to create a Middle East-styled meal.


Cinnamon Apples

5 apples (variety of your choosing), peeled and sliced

1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons butter

Place apples, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg together in a large zipped plastic bag. Toss enough to coat the apples. Put assortment into medium saucepan and add water and butter. Over medium heat, stir occasionally, for eight to 10 minutes or until apples are tender.