Spice of the month: Cinnamon

This time of year we see, smell, and taste cinnamon as a key ingredient in those ubiquitous “pumpkin spice” drinks.

But cinnamon has many more benefits than being part of trendy, seasonal concoctions. Not only does this spice’s taste and aroma have a “feel-good” aspect year-round, but cinnamon also has some distinct health benefits. I’ll outline a few in just a moment. But first, some history…

Cinnamon grows naturally in the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia (which explains its nickname “gift from the East”).

Arabs discovered it as early as 2000 BC. During the Middle Ages, they brought it to Europe in limited supply. And it soon became a symbol of wealth, as it was so precious and difficult to come by.

Over the years, cinnamon anchored the spice trade in historic civilizations in Africa, Asia, and Europe. It even helped establish early American ports—such as Boston and Baltimore—as economic powerhouses in the New World.

The most common form of cinnamon comes from the bark of the Cinnamomum cassia tree. The dried bark curls up into the characteristic curlicue of a cinnamon “stick,” which you can enjoy in seasonal drinks like a hot toddy. The stick can also be ground into dried cinnamon powder, which is found in just about every kitchen in America.

Of course, cinnamon has many non-culinary uses as well. In fact, it’s increasingly found in dietary supplements to help boost health.

Research shows cinnamon blocks inflammation-promoting compounds in the body. And we all know that inflammation is the No. 1 root cause behind many chronic diseases.

Plus, studies show cinnamon can help:

  • Lower cholesterol
  • Improve digestion
  • Prevent blood clots

But the best-known use for cinnamon is to help control blood sugar and protect against Type II diabetes. This versatile spice has been shown in studies to accomplish this through the following actions:

  • Encouraging normal insulin activity
  • Helping tame sugar cravings
  • Making you feel fuller after a meal
  • Preventing chronic insulin resistance brought on by a high-sugar diet
  • Stopping long-term damage to tissues due to chronic high blood sugar and insulin resistance

How can you take advantage of this delightful spice? Well, during this time of year, people tend to think of cinnamon in baked goods. But there are many healthier ways to enjoy it…

I like to add cinnamon to my full-fat, plain, Greek or Icelandic yogurt—or sprinkle it on fall fruits like apples. It can also be combined with other healthy spices in stews and chilis, along with meat and vegetable dishes.

In fact, one of my favorite autumn dishes is pork chops garnished with baked apples coated in cinnamon. Or you can rub a pork roast with a mixture of cinnamon, thyme, basil, and lemon.

Cinnamon is also a staple in Indian dishes like vegetable curries. And it’s a key component in the mole sauce found in Mexican dishes.

So, don’t be afraid to experiment with this “gift from the East.” Just a quarter teaspoon a day can enhance both your senses AND your health.