Thanksgiving-to-Christmas is the season of cinnamon. Over the holidays, I found myself eating the delicious spice in copious amounts, both as an ingredient in my own cooking and as an addition to seemingly every holiday treat that I was offered. Cinnamon was sprinkled in or on my oatmeal, pancakes, smoothies, sweet potatoes, squash dishes, soups, chili, desserts, mulled wine, and coffee. So I asked myself, is it possible to go overboard with cinnamon consumption?
According to the European Union, the answer is YES. But, it depends on which type of cinnamon you’re talking about. Here’s what you need to know:
- Cinnamon, as we know it in the U.S., may be derived from the bark of one of four species of Cinnamomum (a genus of tree). One of those four – Cinnamomum verum – is “true cinnamon.” The other three are referred to as “cassia.” The visual difference is pretty obvious in stick form (see image below). This blog post contains a nice explanation of the differences.
- In the United States, we primarily consume cassia. We prefer the stronger flavor. No rule requires it to be labeled separately, so the cinnamon you pick up in the grocery store is in all likelihood the cassia variety – even the fancy-looking Korintje cinnamon I just purchased from Whole Foods.
- Cassia cinnamon has a high coumarin content, while true cinnamon does not. Coumarin is moderately toxic to the human liver. Most people are not at risk from the amount they consume, but a small number of highly sensitive individuals, and children who eat lots of cinnamon in kid-friendly products, may be at risk for liver damage.
- The U.S. FDA prohibits coumarin from being added to foods, but does not regulate cassia cinnamon usage in the food industry.
- The European Union however, has set a guideline for maximum coumarin content in baked goods of 50 mg/kg of dough in seasonal foods, and 15 mg/kg in everyday items.
Cinnamon was in the news recently because the Danish cinnamon roll – which usually contains copious amounts of cinnamon (exceeding EU’s allowed amount of coumarin) – was at risk of being banned near the holidays. The head of the Danish Baker’s Association dramatically lamented “the end of the cinnamon roll as we know it.” Here are a couple of articles on the matter:
- The Atlantic: EU Worried Danish Cinnamon Rolls Could Cause Liver Damage
- AP: Danish Cinnamon Rolls Too Dang Hot and Spicy For the European Union
What do I make of all this? I don’t think the average American needs to worry about coumarin poisoning from cinnamon, unless they are eating at Cinnabon daily. However, this information serves as another reminder to consume everything in moderation – as delicious as cinnamon is, it may not be wise to consume it in the amounts we do during the holidays. I am also wary of the use of high doses as a supplement. Cinnamon is linked with numerous health claims – anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties; ability to lower blood sugar and cholesterol; etc. – but solid research seems minimal. It would be prudent to ensure supplement capsules contain “true cinnamon” and to keep cassia consumption at moderate levels.
Personally, I’m going to keep my cinnamon consumption to less than a teaspoon a day – just a couple of shakes will do! How much cinnamon do you typically consume?