We might have cinnamon to thank for the discovery of the United States.
An expensive and rare commodity, the spice that could only be found in Asia was so coveted by Europeans that it helped spur on the urge to explore the rest of the world.
Columbus never secured a solid batch of cinnamon after making landfall in North America, although he did mistakenly send back a spice to Queen Isabella that he thought was cinnamon. That imposter was actually allspice.
Cinnamon is still enticing taste buds around the world more than 600 years later. It doesn't matter if it's sweltering or freezing outside—for some inexplicable reason, this slightly sweet, warming spice always seems like a good idea. Made from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree, it gets its potent flavor and scent from the compound cinnamaldehyde, found in the oils of the bark.
Cinnamaldehyde is responsible for the majority of the spice's health benefits—and man, are there a lot. Full of antioxidants and polyphenols, cinnamon is the MVP of the kitchen spice rack. Compared to 26 other spices and superfoods, it outshines the competition and boasts the highest antioxidant count. Why's that good for you? These compounds protect the cells in the body from free radical damage that can cause inflammation, premature aging, and chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
But when it comes to the heart, cinnamon is kind of a big deal. Studies show that the spicy brown powder increases good cholesterol, decreases blood pressure levels, and is attributed with anti-inflammatory properties. With all of these factors combined, the medicinal spice gets serious street cred from scientists and medical researchers.
What takes it from healthful spice to superfood status? The star ingredient in Grandma's cinnamon rolls actually mimics insulin in the body. Yep, cinnamon lowers blood sugar levels by convincing the body that it doesn't need to produce more insulin—and by lowers blood sugar levels, we mean by as much as 10 to 29 percent. It seems that it doesn't just trick the body into believing it's insulin, but it also improves the body's sensitivity to it, making cinnamon especially beneficial to those with diabetes and metabolic disorders.
Not convinced yet? This will blow your mind: Cinnamon extract suppresses the growth of tau, the protein that grows abnormally in the brain of those with Alzheimer's disease and contributes to the devastating effects of the disease. And in preliminary animal studies, this spice has been shown to protect neurons and regulate neuroprotective proteins in specimens with brain damage from Parkinson's disease.
If you haven't already started piling cinnamon into your mouth by the spoonful, keep in mind that you can add this beneficial spice to nearly anything—it doesn't need to be relegated to sweet desserts like pecan pie or snickerdoodle cookies. In fact, in Sri Lanka and India, locals use cinnamon in more savory dishes like curries and sauteed meats.
Try this superfood topping in apple pie overnight oats—your heart, brain, and stomach will thank you!
Photo credit: Alicia Cho