In SPICE SPICE BABY: 100 Recipes with Healing Spices for Your Family Table, Harvard-trained molecular biologist Kanchan Koya unpacks the health benefits to using spices when cooking for the whole family.
Kanchan Koya has a doctorate in Molecular Biology from Harvard Medical School, training from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, and knows that food can be the best and most powerful preventative medicine. While studying DNA repair as a PhD student, Kanchan’s lab began studying the cancer-fighting powers of curcumin, the active compound in the ancient spice, turmeric. This sparked Kanchan’s interest in the science-backed health benefits of spices, which she had grown up enjoying on a daily basis in India. Upon becoming a mother, she founded Spice Spice Baby, a platform dedicated to shedding light on the healing potential of spices, demystifying them for a global audience, and inspiring their use in food for the whole family.
In this week's Clever Cookstr podcast, Kanchan demystifies the health impacts of spices and talks about why incorporating spices into foods from baby purees to family dinners can lead to healthier, happier, less picky eaters. For example, the ubiquitous cinnamon, too often relegated to pumpkin pie mixes, boasts serious health benefits and applications in sweet and savory dishes alike.
Cinnamon has been part of recorded human history since 2800 B.C. when it was first mentioned in Chinese medical writings. Since then it’s been used in ancient Egypt, Europe, and China for the preservation of meat, as an aphrodisiac, and as perfume in the embalming process.
What it is
Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of a dozen species of evergreen trees. Ceylon cinnamon, called ‘True Cinnamon,’ comes from the Cinnamomum verum tree, native to Sri Lanka. The most widely available cinnamon is of the Cassia variety, from other Cinnamomum species grown in Indonesia, India, Vietnam, and China.
Ceylon cinnamon has a delicate, light, citrus flavor. Cassia cinnamon is stronger, spicier, and more pungent. Both types of cinnamon have peppery, warm notes that add elements of sweetness and earthiness to desserts and savory dishes.
My favorite cinnamon pairings
- Fresh fruit and yogurt
- French toast
- Granola bars
- Fruit crumbles
- Beef or lentil stews, tagines
- Sweet potatoes, winter squash
- Pork, lamb
- Spiced teas, tisanes
Why science says it’s good for you
Studies on type II diabetics have shown that even less than ½ a teaspoon a day of cinnamon for four months reduces blood glucose levels. There is evidence that cinnamon improves the function of insulin, the hormone that coaxes our cells to soak up blood sugar and use it for energy. Rice pudding flavored with cinnamon spiked blood sugar less than plain rice pudding (and probably tasted loads better too)!
2. Anti-microbial (bacterial, fungal, viral)
Our ancestors used cinnamon to prevent food spoilage and for good reason. Cinnamon can kill bacteria, viruses, and even drug-resistant fungi. It can disrupt a particularly nasty type of bacterial colony called a biofilm that can coat the surface of medical devices used in hospitals as well as our teeth! While chemists evolve cinnamaldehyde into a medical drug, you can feel good about adding cinnamon to that meat dish to keep it from spoiling too quick.
Inflammation is pivotal for our body’s defense against invaders, but unwanted inflammation can contribute to chronic diseases like cancer, bowel disease, and Alzheimer’s. Cinnamon is an anti-inflammatory compound – it blocks inflammatory molecules like arachidonic acid and TNF-alpha, keeping unnecessary inflammation in check and inflammation-related diseases at bay.
Though more work needs to be done, studies suggest that cinnamon can lower bad cholesterol (LDL). Cinnamon can also lower blood pressure and reduce triglycerides.
5. Cognition boosting
Studies in animal models have shown that cinnamon improves memory and learning. The spice may also protect the brain in Parkinson’s disease. A small study in humans demonstrated that the mere scent of cinnamon improved cognitive function, though larger are needed to form firm conclusions.
Cinnamon slowed tumor growth in several animal models, although human studies have yet to be conducted. The spice inhibits the function of a molecule called NF-kappaB which turns on many cancer causing genes. It can also block proteins that allow cancers to access our blood supply and spread throughout the body.
7. Female hormonal cycle regulating
In a provocative, albeit small-scale, study conducted by researchers at Columbia University in New York, cinnamon improved menstrual regularity in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Larger trials are necessary, but the findings are intriguing given the link between insulin resistance and PCOS, and cinnamon’s positive effects on insulin function.
Why it’s best to use Ceylon (not Cassia) cinnamon
Cinnamon contains a natural compound called coumarin, which acts as a blood thinner, and prevents blood clotting. At high doses, coumarin can cause liver toxicity and unforunately, Cassia cinnamon contains measurable amounts of coumarin. While a sprinkling on your French toast or muffins won’t really matter, if you love cinnamon and use it routinely for its myriad health benefits and flavor, you should track down and use Ceylon cinnamon. It has only trace amounts of coumarin and is safe at high doses.
In general, you can assume any unlabeled, supermarket cinnamon is Cassia; true cinnamon is usually labeled as Ceylon. If you’re buying unlabeled, whole sticks, take a closer look at the barks: Cassia cinnamon sticks are tougher and made up of a single layer of bark, whereas Ceylon cinnamon is thinner with multiple layers within each bark that break easily.
Reprinted with permission from SPICE SPICE BABY: 100 Recipes with Healing Spices for Your Family Table. Copyright © 2018 by Kanchan Koya. Published by Spice Spice Baby LLC.