Barking up the right tree
EC: What Cinnamon Actually Is
Credit: Photo by Matthew O'Shea via Getty Images

If you're looking for an excuse to eat cinnamon, you could just go ahead and eat cinnamon like the free-willed, grown-ass adult person being you are, or you might also seek backup in the form of a scientific study. One cinnamon scholar from the Ohio Northern University Raabe College of Pharmacy found that daily cinnamon supplements helped type 2 diabetics reduce their blood sugar and other studies find that it might be beneficial in anti-aging, antioxidant control, and reducing blood pressure. Researchers from Wheeling Jesuit University found in a study commissioned by The Sense of Smell Institute that the scent of cinnamon "improved participants' scores on tasks related to attentional processes, virtual recognition memory, working memory, and visual-motor response speed."

Still another study by the Smell and Taste Research Foundation found that the smell of cinnamon "can increase penile blood-flow"—which is why you might see pumpkin pie or cinnamon rolls touted as an aphrodisiac in listicles and magazine cover lines. But before you get too excited, know that cola, licorice and lavender have the same effect, and only under certain conditions. Other publications tout the use of cinnamon as a digestive aid, bug bite irritation reliever, solution for gnarly breath, or solution for neck soreness. Several years back, folks with little regard for their personal wellbeing and a hunger for notoriety might have attempted to swallow a spoonful of cinnamon and document the results online as part of the Cinnamon Challenge. This rarely ended well.

Y'know what cinnamon is also great for? Being delicious. But what is cinnamon, exactly?

Some folks will get pedantic and say that the much rarer Cinnamomum verum or Ceylon cinnamon originally from Sri Lanka, and grown in Madagascar and the Seychelles is the only "true cinnamon," but they're really dull at parties. Cinnamomum cassia—a.k.a. Cassia—largely comes from Indonesia, Vietnam, China, and Myanmar and you've eaten way more of that in your lifetime.

They're both perfectly valid sources of the flavor you know as cinnamon; both are made from evergreen trees in the genus Cinnamomum. The farmers who cultivate these trees peel off the rough outer layer of bark, shave the inner layer of bark, and let it dry. The bark will naturally curl into quills, which are cut into those sticks you see steeping in cider mugs and tied ever just so atop holiday packages on Pinterest. Actual humans tend to consume it after it's been ground into a powder. Go right ahead and taste them side by side if you'd care to. You may find that you prefer one to another, but that doesn't mean you've got better or worse taste than anyone else.

And while it is edible comfort when it's sprinkled with sugar atop toast, cinnamon doesn't have to stick to the sweet side. Cinnamon is a key component in curries, chili, stews, tagines, rubs, and so much more. Its warm, woody notes play gorgeously against long-cooked meats, fragrant rice, and spicy chiles. So what is cinnamon? It might be the thing that's good for whatever's ailing you—especially if it's an empty stomach.