When you're cruising through the mall or racing to your airport gate, a sudden whiff of cinnamon smells like temptation. While nobody would ever mistake a sugary Cinnabon roll for health food, you might have heard that the spice in that decadent pastry is good for you — so good that some health experts recommend swapping cinnamon for sugar in your coffee, including the folks at the Cleveland Clinic.
But are cinnamon's potential benefits significant enough to warrant messing with your favorite morning joe? As with so many questions of health, the answer is, it depends.
Cinnamon in Medicine: Then & Now
Humans have enjoyed cinnamon for thousands of years, coveting the spice not only for its scent and flavor, but also for its medicinal powers. In the Ayurvedic tradition, cinnamon is utilized to treat colds and congestion, improve acne and dry skin, aid digestion, and ease pain. The ancient Egyptians even trusted cinnamon as an embalming agent — evidence, perhaps, of its reputed antibacterial, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties.
Modern practitioners of natural medicine tend to endorse all these claims and more, recommending cinnamon to combat urinary tract infections, relieve menstrual cramps, and improve cognitive functioning. Touted as an antioxidant, an anti-inflammatory, an immunity booster, and a blood-sugar stabilizer, cinnamon has achieved superfood status, which is why you should consider the science and not just the hype.
"Cinnamon is controversial in medicine," says Dr. Astrid Pujari, a Seattle physician who integrates nutritional, herbal, and mind-body therapies into her practice. To understand the controversy, it helps to know the origin of the spice.
What Is Cinnamon?
Cinnamon comes from the bark of evergreen trees. Endless varieties exist, but only two types are harvested for commercial use. Ceylon cinnamon, sometimes called "true" cinnamon, originates from a tree native to Sri Lanka. Cassia cinnamon, cultivated from a similar plant in Indonesia and China, delivers a stronger, hotter taste, and is what you'll find on the shelf at the grocery.
Serious foodies can obtain a couple of sub-varieties of Cassia that offer subtle flavor differences at the gourmet shop, or pay for true Ceylon cinnamon (at about twice the price), but regardless of the variety, the production process is the same. Tree bark is dried into curled quills that are later sold as cinnamon sticks, or ground into powder.
What's the Difference Between Ceylon and Cassia?
From a scientific standpoint, there's only one key difference between Ceylon cinnamon and Cassia: Cassia contains coumarin, an organic chemical compound naturally present in many plants. High doses of coumarin can cause liver damage in humans, so most natural health devotees and even some practitioners of Western medicine recommend buying true Ceylon cinnamon.
But Dr. Pujari, who is board-certified in both internal medicine and integrative holistic medicine, disagrees. She feels that the best research to date proves just three claims about cinnamon: it's an antioxidant, it can help lower LDL cholesterol, and it can help control blood sugar in people with Type 2 diabetes. And all of these studies were conducted with Cassia, which is why Pujari recommends regular grocery store cinnamon over the "true" Ceylon variety to her patients.
How Much Cinnamon Is Enough (or Too Much)?
According to the data, you need between one-and-a-half and six grams of cassia cinnamon per day to reap the benefits of the spice, but because cinnamon comes from a plant, and coumarin content varies from tree to tree, it's impossible to know exactly how much coumarin you'll get along with each dose. Liver toxicity from coumarin occurs when you regularly ingest more than 50 milligrams per day, but even then, Pujari explains, the problem would resolve for most people as soon as they reduced their coumarin intake.
"The likelihood of side effects in the average person is low. Generally I recommend one-half teaspoon of cinnamon Cassia per day, which gives you 30 milligrams of coumarin at most. Then you're practically guaranteed to be under the 50 milligram threshold of toxicity."
So, Should You Put Cinnamon in Your Coffee?
You can buy cinnamon capsules without coumarin at health food stores, but again, studies indicate that supplements don't work as well as regular cinnamon Cassia from the supermarket.
"Cinnamon Cassia is the easiest, cheapest, and tastiest way to obtain a therapeutic benefit," Pujari says. And adding cinnamon to your coffee may be the simplest method to get the job done — if you decide you like the taste.
What do you think? Do you (or would you) add cinnamon to your coffee?