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Little Bit of Spice for Health, but Which One?

The Claim: Ceylon cinnamon, a milder form of the spice sold in gourmet stores, is healthier than ordinary supermarket cinnamon. Cinnamon can lower blood sugar in diabetics, ease arthritis and improve cholesterol.

The Verdict: A recent meta-analysis found cinnamon can lower blood sugar and cholesterol in humans, but so far evidence that it eases arthritis is limited to animal data. For health benefits, cassia cinnamon, which is typically sold in supermarkets, has been more widely studied than Ceylon cinnamon. But scientists say Ceylon cinnamon is likely safer in very high doses than supermarket cinnamon.

Studies have found blood-sugar benefits of a sprinkle a day of cassia cinnamon, says Angela Ginn, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But most of the studies in the meta-analysis used cassia cinnamon so it is a "big unknown" whether Ceylon cinnamon would offer the same benefits, she adds.

Cinnamon is harvested from the bark of evergreen trees. Ceylon cinnamon, or Cinnamomum verum, comes from a small tree native to Sri Lanka. Ceylon cinnamon is lighter in color than the cassia cinnamon, which typically comes from Indonesia, China and other countries. Cassia cinnamon tastes "stronger and hotter," says Ana Sortun, executive chef of Oleana restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., while Ceylon cinnamon is full of "lighter, brighter citrus tones."

The meta-analysis found a significant decrease in blood glucose levels in diabetics as well as a drop in cholesterol. The analysis, which included 10 studies and a total of 543 patients, was published earlier this year in the Annals of Family Medicine. Doses in the studies ranged from 120 milligrams a day to six grams.

Sprinkling cinnamon on food "might help a little" to control a diabetic's blood sugar, says Emmy Suhl, a certified diabetes educator and nutritionist at Joslin Diabetes Center. in Boston, but it won't likely have a strong enough effect to allow diabetics to stop their medications.

If you decide to use a lot of cinnamon, "you do need to use Ceylon because it will lower your risk of liver damage," says Ms. Ginn, who is an education coordinator at the University of Maryland Center for Diabetes and Endocrinology in Baltimore.

A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry tested cinnamon commercially available in the U.S. and found "substantial amounts" of coumarin, a naturally occurring organic compound that can cause liver damage if consumed in excess. The study found only trace amounts of coumarin in Ceylon cinnamon.

"From a safety point of view, Ceylon cinnamon is better," says study author Ikhlas A. Khan, assistant director for the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi's School of Pharmacy in Oxford, Miss. Not everyone is biologically susceptible to the liver damage, he says, adding that cinnamon "in moderation" is safe for everyone.

Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has warned that anyone who regularly eats a lot of cassia cinnamon—more than two grams (0.07 ounce) a day for a 132-pound adult—could be at risk for side effects. The agency adds it doesn't have any reports of side effects from occasional consumption of cinnamon.

Both cassia and Ceylon cinnamon are on the Food and Drug Administration's list of spices safe for human consumption, but the list doesn't specify quantities.

The American Spice Trade Association based in Washington, D.C., says "cinnamon has been consumed for thousands of years without any known negative health effects."

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