Deep within the inner recesses of your kitchen pantry is a spice that’s been prized for thousands of years. It’s even mentioned in the Bible. It's cinnamon, and while it's often used for baking and flavoring in the United States, new research suggests the health benefits are numerous.
Previous studies have shown that cinnamon contains compounds that are beneficial to people with diabetes. A 2011 study from VIT University in India examined cinnamon’s effect on diabetic rats and demonstrated that cinnamon bark is effective in reducing post-meal high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) levels. A meta-analysis of clinical studies on cinnamon published in the Journal of Medicinal Food concluded that cinnamon lowers fasting blood glucose levels in people with Type II diabetes.
Another study led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Department of Human Nutrition, involved 60 people and concluded that cinnamon reduces serum glucose, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol in people with Type II diabetes. It also suggested that adding cinnamon to the diet of people with Type II diabetes will reduce risk factors associated with diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
But more recent research builds on those studies and suggests that cinnamon's nutritional power goes beyond that.
A metabolic powerhouse
Cinnamon contains compounds known as phenols, which researchers believe bind to a particular protein called Sirtuin-1 (also known as Sirt-1) to activate the protein, which regulates insulin, transports glucose — and a whole lot more.
“If [our hypothesis] true, it means cinnamon is doing more than just lowering blood sugar,” Amy Stockert, associate professor of biochemistry at Ohio Northern University Raabe College of Pharmacy, told Time. “It’s acting on a protein that affects lipid metabolism, cell growth changes, and the expression of a variety of genes.”
As Time reports:
Stockert’s previous research found that people who consumed 1 gram a day of cinnamon saw blood sugar reductions comparable to what would be expected from prescription drugs. But she believes that even smaller quantities — like those used in cooking and seasoning — could also have benefits.“If cinnamon interacts with this enzyme in the way our model suggests, it could possibly be linked to anti-aging, antioxidant control, a lot of really important health benefits,” she says. “And it shouldn’t take one gram a day to see those effects.”
Who's not buying the hype?
According to the American Diabetes Association, “There is not enough evidence from research to claim that including cinnamon in your daily diet will help regulate blood glucose in people with diabetes, so it is not recommended for that purpose at this time.” The ADA points to a 2008 study by University of Connecticut and Hartford Hospital researchers that found a lack of efficacy in cinnamon’s ability to reduce blood sugar and fat.
Other critics argue that studies on rodents may not translate to humans. “It’s harder to duplicate the studies on cinnamon’s efficacy in humans because you can easily control a rat or mouse’s diet,” says Don Graves, a former distinguished professor at Iowa State University and current adjunct professor at University of California Santa Barbara.
“It’s very hard to control the diet of humans, it varies so much,” says Graves,. Nonetheless, he concludes, “Both in animals and humans, without a doubt, cinnamon is very effective in helping manage diabetes.”
Nancy Farrell, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Time that the issue needs further research. However, “cinnamon, in moderation and in daily foods, is generally a good habit,” she says. However, she cautions people who have liver damage to talk to a doctor first, as high doses can worsen liver function.
What other benefits?
Israeli researchers at Tel Aviv University have isolated a section of the cinnamon plant capable of delaying the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Cinnamon also fights the E. coli bacteria in unpasteurized juices, according to research by Daniel Fung, professor of food science at Kansas State University.
“Cinnamon has tremendous killing power in controlling some microbes,” Fung tells MNN. “At a minimum, it can preserve food longer, and in some cases it can kill bad organisms,”
So, go ahead and relocate cinnamon front and center in your spice rack. It may be good for you.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in February 2012.