Vail Science of Food column: The secrets of cinnamon as nature’s pharmacy
Science of Food
With the winter holidays just around the corner, many people will enjoy traditional holiday dishes flavored with cinnamon. In Eastern cultures, however, cinnamon is used not only as a spice to flavor and preserve food but also as a medicine to treat illness and disease. With the help of modern science, this special spice and its components have been studied in depth, and some of the specific molecular mechanisms by which cinnamon exerts its therapeutic effects in the human body have now been clearly elucidated.
Although numerous varieties of cinnamon exist, the most commonly used form as we know it comes from the bark of the evergreen tree Cinnamomum zeylancium, native to Southeast Asia, South America and Indonesia. Essential oils from the leaves and flowers can also be extracted from the tree, although it is the inner bark of the tree, after being cut out and dried, that is the familiar cinnamon stick we can purchase at nearly every supermarket in our country. Grind up this “quill” of cinnamon to achieve a fine powder for use in cooking and baking at home.
Nature created herbs, spices and whole foods to contain a myriad of compounds, and unlike a pharmaceutical drug that is typically a concentrated dose of just a single compound, it is this molecular diversity that makes “nature’s pharmacy” effective and safe, with minimal side effects. This molecular diversity also imparts the diverse biological effects in the body. In 1978, more than 70 distinct compounds were isolated from cinnamon, the major components being cinnamaldehyde, cinnamic acid and esters, eugenol and catechins. Further experiments, both in the laboratory and in the clinic, have demonstrated that these compounds act as anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-oxidant and anti-cancer agents that cultures have observed in using cinnamon medicinally since ancient times.
Perhaps more astonishing is the data from research that has emerged in the past decade or so on cinnamon’s use for treating Type II diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Studies in both animals and humans show that cinnamon, at doses as low as 250 milligrams (less than 1/4 teaspoon), has the ability to lower plasma triglycerides, total blood cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein, thus reducing overall lipid (fat) accumulation and the development of atherosclerosis that leads to blockages. Again, due to nature’s brilliant design and the molecular diversity, doses as high as 5 grams of cinnamon per day can be ingested without any measurable side effects.
Experiment with cinnamon
Consuming cinnamon has also been shown to lower fasting blood glucose levels by a mechanism that involves an increase in the metabolism or breakdown of glucose in cells. It also can create a feeling of satiety, meaning that eating cinnamon has the potential to curb our appetites. Specific genes and proteins associated with insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism have been identified, essentially making cinnamon an “insulin mimic” due to these observed pharmacological effects in the body.
As we all pull out the cinnamon jar for the holidays, don’t limit its use to pumpkin pie and sweet potato pudding. Get creative and experiment with adding it to other foods and drinks in your daily diet. It’s a wonderful addition to oatmeal, granola and whole-grain banana pancakes. Add it to any tea (chai, green, turmeric, ginger) or even your coffee in the morning. Incorporate cinnamon into salad dressings or in chicken marinades for an extra zing, knowing that it will also be healing your heart and body. In Eastern folk medicine, cinnamon has been used as a remedy for a variety of illnesses and diseases for thousands of years. Today, with the help of modern science, we now have the molecular and clinical evidence supporting its therapeutic value, and this clearly reveals the culinary delights and medicinal secrets of cinnamon that we all can enjoy.
Lisa Julian, Ph.D., has a passion for organic chemistry, the “molecules of life,” and its application to food and health. She’s the owner of Elevated Yoga & Holistic Health in Frisco and teaches Science and Nutrition at CU Denver and CMC. She can be reached at 970-401-2071 and firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about services offered at her studio, visit http://www.elevatedyogacolorado.com.
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