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How Dangerous Is Cinnamon?

The popular kitchen spice cinnamon often contains coumarin. How risky is this component, and how can its possible dangers be avoided?
How Dangerous Is Cinnamon?

Most natural products have many different effects on human physiology. Some may be beneficial, but others might be deleterious. That reinforces the wisdom of the old adage, “everything in moderation.”

Moderation is a great watchword for so many things that delight us: afternoon naps, wine, ice cream and even the spices we use to make our everyday meals so delightful. Excesses can cause trouble, as this reader has just recognized:

Q. I’ve recently learned that cinnamon contains coumarin. I found an article about coumarin being carcinogenic (Food and Chemical Toxicology, Apr., 1999).

I am concerned about this even though the research is old because for the past 15 years I’ve been a heavy imbiber of cinnamon in my morning oatmeal. How dangerous is cinnamon?

A. Coumarin is a natural component of cassia cinnamon bark and may end up in the powdered cinnamon you find on your spice shelf. The article you cited concluded that the risk of cancer is low and newer research actually suggests that coumarin may have anti-cancer activity (Current Medicinal Chemistry, Vol. 17, No. 13, 2010).

Other Hazards of Coumarin in Cinnamon

There are concerns, however, that too much coumarin could harm the liver. Because coumarin levels vary widely from one cinnamon product to another, it is hard to establish a safe amount of the spice on a daily basis.

Since you are a heavy cinnamon user, you should ask your doctor to monitor your liver enzymes to make sure you have not exceeded your limit. It might also be wise to reduce the amount of cinnamon you use to flavor your oatmeal each day.

Our Trick for Avoiding Coumarin in Oatmeal

We like to put a cinnamon stick in with the liquid we use in cooking our steel-cut oats. (This trick would also work for rolled oats.) It gives the oatmeal a little flavor, but since we take the cinnamon stick out and re-use it once or twice, we are consuming only water-soluble compounds from cinnamon. Coumarin is not water-soluble, so we don’t need to worry about it.

You can learn more about the pros and cons of cinnamon at PeoplesPharmacy.com. This spice has numerous benefits, such as helping to control blood sugar and cholesterol. It just has to be used wisely-in moderation.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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