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What Is Cinnamon?

Since ancient times, the fragrant spice has delighted palates, influenced the fate of nations, and been hailed for its supposed medicinal properties. Considering the deep history of cinnamon, it may seem as if you've already learned everything there is to know about this common household ingredient. But think again! Read on to find out if you’re getting the most out of cinnamon and to learn when its use can put you at risk.

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What Is Cinnamon and Where Does It Come From?

Cinnamon is an ancient spice that comes from the bark of several species of the Cinnamomum genus of evergreen trees, which belong to the laurel family. The most popular types of cinnamon are native to Sri Lanka and China, though cinnamon is grown throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. 

In antiquity, cinnamon was prized as much for it's sweet, sharp, and sensuous fragrance as it was for its taste. The ancient Egyptians used cinnamon along with myrrh to embalm the dead, and the Romans burned it on funeral pyres. It was used in religious ceremonies by the ancient Hebrews and is mentioned in the Bible as an ingredient in the preparation of holy anointing oil. 

During the Middle Ages in Europe, cinnamon was a status symbol ingredient in cuisine enjoyed by the elite, brought west from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) by Arab traders. The Portuguese took over the cinnamon trade in Ceylon during the 15th century, and centuries of fighting over the spice ensued between them, the Ceylonese, and Dutch and British colonizers. In time, cultivation of the sought-after spice spread across the globe. Today, cinnamon is more likely to evoke feelings of comfort rather than bloodlust.

A Look at the Nutrition Facts of the Spice.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these are the nutrition facts for 1 teaspoon (tsp) of ground cinnamon: 

Calories: 6

Protein: 0 grams (g)

Carbohydrates: 2 g

Dietary fiber: 1 g (4 percent daily value, or DV)

Total sugars: 0 g

Total fat: 0 g

Cholesterol: 0 milligrams (mg)

Sodium: 0 mg

Calcium: 26 mg (2.6 percent DV)

Potassium: 11 mg (0.23 percent DV)

Magnesium: 2 mg (0.5 percent DV)

Phosphorus: 2 mg (0.2 percent DV)

Vitamin K: 1 microgram (1.22 percent DV)

Vitamin A: 8 international units (0.16 percent DV)

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What Are the Possible Health Benefits of Cinnamon?

Cinnamon has quite the reputation as a healing agent. The spice has been credited with antibacterial, antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. People use it to treat bug bites, ease the discomfort of urinary tract infections, and soothe rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, as well as a broad spectrum of other maladies. Studies have explored the possibility that cinnamon can help with managing blood sugar, improving high cholesterol, fighting dementia, and even treating multiple sclerosis. But the research so far is preliminary. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), “Studies done in people don’t support using cinnamon for any health condition.

To counter one of the most widely circulated claims — that cinnamon supplements help people with diabetes control their blood sugar — the agency points to a 2012 systematic review of 10 randomized, controlled clinical trials in people with type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. The review concluded that cinnamon supplements weren’t shown to help reduce levels of glycosylated hemoglobin A1C (a long-term measure of glucose control), serum insulin, or postprandial glucose (measured two hours after eating a meal). 

Still, a subsequent review and analysis of 10 randomized clinical trials involving cinnamon that was published in the Annals of Family Medicine saw a decrease in levels of fasting plasma glucose, total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, as well as an increase in HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels in those with type 2 diabetes. This review did agree with the previous one that A1C levels were unaffected by cinnamon use. Though this news is slightly encouraging, it certainly isn’t enough to justify using cinnamon instead of diabetes or cholesterol treatments as directed by your healthcare provider.