Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Cinnamon: A Delicious Spice, Cinnamaldehyde, and Obesity

Cinnamon is shown on the right and star anise on the left.
Public domain photo by Couleur

A Versatile Spice


Cinnamon is a delicious addition to foods and drinks. The spice may have an interesting benefit beyond flavour enhancement. Cinnamaldehyde is the main chemical responsible for the flavour and aroma of cinnamon. Researchers have discovered that the substance may play a role in the fight against obesity. This could be great news. Care is necessary when using cinnamon, however. The spice is widely accepted as being safe for human consumption when used in culinary amounts. It may not be a good idea to eat huge amounts of cinnamon in an attempt to promote weight loss, though, as described below.

A Delicious Addition to Food and Drinks


Even without health benefits, cinnamon is a lovely spice. It's a great addition to many foods, including those of some traditional fall and winter celebrations. Apple and pumpkin pies, mincemeat, rolls and toast, Christmas cakes and puddings, eggnog, coffee, and tea are all enhanced by the addition of the spice. Cinnamon works well in both sweet and savoury dishes. I nearly always have some in my kitchen.

Cinnamon is a great addition to Christmas foods.
Public domain photo by Couleur

Harvesting Cinnamon


Cinnamon is obtained from the inner bark of certain tree species in the genus Cinnamomum. Cinnamomum cassia is the most common species used commercially and produces the type of cinnamon sold in most grocery stores. Spice made from this tree is sometimes known as cassia instead of cinnamon. Cinnamomum verum is called Ceylon cinnamon or “true” cinnamon and is generally more expensive, at least where I live.

The wet, inner bark of a cinnamon tree curls as it dries, forming shapes known as quills. The quills are cut into shorter sections to be sold as sticks or ground into a powder. Removing the bark from part of the tree has to be done carefully in order for the tree to survive. The cambium, or the layer that produces new bark, must be left in place.

After about two years of harvest, cinnamon trees are often coppiced. Coppicing is a technique in which a tree is cut down to a short stump. The stumps grow new shoots. In the case of cinnamon, these can eventually be used to harvest spice. Coppicing allows cultivated trees to live for a long time. It works with many tree species, but not all of them.

Cinnamaldehyde


In its pure form, cinnamaldehyde is a thick yellow liquid at room temperature. Previous research has shown that the chemical appears to reduce both obesity and high blood sugar in mice. New research from the University of Michigan has added to the evidence. This research is especially interesting because it involved cells donated by human volunteers, though it wasn’t done in the human body. The donated cells were fat cells, or adipocytes.

The scientists found that cinnamaldehyde activated adipocyte genes and enzymes involved in thermogenesis, or the process of heat production from chemicals. The cinnamaldehyde triggered the production of heat from the lipid (fat) molecules in the adipocytes. During this process, the fat molecules broke down.

Cinnamon and tea is a lovely combination.
Public domain photo by George Hodan

Safety of Cinnamaldehyde


Concentrated cinnamaldehyde is a skin irritant, and the chemical is toxic in large doses. Quote from the National Center for Biotechnology Information

Cinnamaldehyde is used as a fungicide and an insecticide. The safety of cinnamaldehyde as an obesity treatment—if in fact it works in the intact body—is currently unknown. The concentrated chemical is dangerous, as the quote above states. More research is needed to understand the action and safety of different concentrations of the substance in the human body. One question that needs to be answered is whether deliberately stimulating thermogenesis in adipocytes with cinnamaldehyde is safe.

Using the Spice


It's unlikely that the ingestion of a single, specific substance will completely solve a weight problem. The usual recommendations of health experts to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly are important. It’s also important for people who are very overweight or out of shape to see a doctor before starting an exercise program and to start the program gently. It might be a good idea to also use cinnamon liberally (but not excessively), though. The addition of the spice to a wide variety of food would certainly be enjoyable for many people. It might also be a helpful addition to a healthy lifestyle with respect to losing weight.


References


Cinnamon turns up the heat on fat cells from the Medical Xpress news site

Cinnamaldehyde information from the National Center for Biotechnology Information