Spices have held a multi-faceted place in history. Certain spices have been used to deter predators, while others have been used in religious ceremonies. And while spices have long been used in medicinal cooking, researchers are just beginning to discover their precise medical benefits. Cinnamon is known for its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. But is cinnamon good for diabetes? The research is still out on this one, but here we dig into why scientists are hopeful about this spicy prospect for enhanced diabetic nutritional management.
Where does cinnamon come from?
Cinnamon comes from Cinnamomum trees, a small evergreen tree in the laurel family. It grows naturally in wet, tropical forests and today is cultivated in Southeast Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia. Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of the stem, the part of the plant that distributes waters and sugars to nourish the tree.
Cinnamon production involves a practice called coppicing, a method that exploits a plant’s ability to grow new shoots when the branches are cut down. Because the spice comes from the inner bark of the stem, cultivation methods try to grow as many stems as possible, cutting down the longer branches repeatedly which causes the cinnamon tree to grow like a bush. Once harvested, the inner bark is left to dry in the sun and rolled by hand to form quills.
What types of cinnamon are there?
In most grocery stores, we find two types of cinnamon, each making up about half of the world’s cinnamon market.
Ceylon cinnamon, or “true cinnamon,” comes from the inner bark of the Cinnamomum verum tree.
Cassia cinnamon is a closely related plant, also in the laurel family, but the bark is coarser, thicker, and more loosely coiled. It has a more intense cinnamon aroma than ceylon cinnamon, and tastes more bitter, without the floral or citrus notes of ceylon cinnamon. Unlike ceylon cinnamon, cassia contains a compound called cineole, which is fresh and penetrating, as well as coumarin, which is sweet and grassy.
Cinnamon is either sold in the form of sticks or ground powder. Sticks can last in an airtight container for up to one year, and the more lightly colored and fragile the sticks, the higher the quality. The ground spice loses its flavor within six months, so it’s best to buy in small quantities.
If you’re buying a jar of cinnamon, you can’t be sure if you’re holding ceylon or cassia, unless it’s specifically labeled. Cinnamon sticks can be easier to discern because of the color and thickness.
Does cinnamon help diabetes?
While scientists don’t yet know everything about how cinnamon impacts your body’s metabolism, understanding the chemical compounds in the spice can give us an idea of why researchers are hopeful about its potential.
The two main compounds in cinnamon are cinnamaldehyde and cinnamic acid. Cinnamaldehyde is suggested to have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and has also been suggested to positively affect health conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, depression and obesity.
Cinnamic acid is a compound found in many fruits and vegetables, and studies indicate it can activate metabolic processes that promote a myriad of health benefits.
Cinnamon also contains cinnamate and polyphenols such as asrutin and catechin, chemicals that are known to imitate insulin activity and benefit glycemic status. Because the chemical compounds in the spice have similarities to other compounds that can improve metabolic health, cinnamon has been studied as a way to improve metabolic markers such as antioxidant activity, insulin resistance, insulin secretion and insulin sensitivity. See: What Are Polyphenols?
In 2019, a group at Tehran University conducted a review of 18 clinical trials that studied the effect of cinnamon on the metabolic status of individuals with type 2 diabetes. They concluded that cinnamon may have a beneficial effect on fasting blood sugar levels, but there is insignificant evidence of an impact on body weight, body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference — all important indicators of metabolic health. The researchers found, when analyzing the studies, that they all used different cinnamon extraction methods, forms, dosages and sources, making for inconsistent and incomparable results — and also throwing into question whether cinnamon (in any form or dosage) has any significant medical benefits for those with type II diabetes. So questions like “does cinnamon lower blood sugar?”, well, the jury is most definitely still out.
Is too much cinnamon bad for you?
While scientists believe that both types of cinnamon share similar health properties, cassia cinnamon could potentially be harmful if consumed in excess. Cassia cinnamon contains coumarin, a compound which can cause temporary liver damage. Because you may not know what kind of cinnamon you have in your spice cabinet, care should be taken to consume what cinnamon you do have in moderation.
The benefits of cinnamon as a flavor enhancer
Cinnamon’s main compound, cinnamaldehyde, belongs to a class of chemical compounds known as phenols. Often strongly flavored, others in this group include anise, licorice, clove, mahleb, vanilla and cassia. Cinnamon creates a warming quality in your mouth, and though it isn’t sweet itself, it enhances the perception of sweetness from other ingredients.
Cinnamon can provide four flavor profiles when paired with other spices: spicy & woody, warming and pungent, floral, and wood & warming. To extract these profiles, try pairing it with the following spices:
Woody flavor – Add allspice or peppercorn:
Example: Jamaican jerk spice blend, great as a rub on your chicken breast.
Earthy, deep warming flavor – Add cumin:.
Example: Garam Masala spice blend, great added to stewed vegetables in chicken broth and coconut milk.
Floral notes — Add cardamom:.
Example: Iranian advieh spice blend, great added to stews or rice pilafs.
Clean, warm and woody — Add clove, anise or star anise:.
Example: Mulling or mole spice blend, great added to tea, cider and sauces.
There is no single supplement that can treat diabetes, although early research suggests that certain compounds (e.g., some polyphenols) in foods are clinically beneficial, especially in the realm of glycemic regulation. Cinnamon may positively affect your blood glucose levels and insulin response, but the true clinical significance of this response has yet to be definitively shown by scientists. What we do know is that cinnamon can help in your diabetes management plan by adding warm flavors that could enhance the natural sweetness of your favorite healthy foods. To learn more about the healthiest food choices for managing blood glucose levels, see:
Blood Sugar, Diabetes and Inflammation
7 Simple Ways to Control Blood Sugar Spikes
What Is Fiber?