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Sunday, October 16, 2016
Food / Drink ...

Not long ago I took a liking to cinnamon tea. I had purchased a bag of cinnamon sticks on eBay and when you take a handful and soak them in a cup of boiling hot water, they make a really spicy and comforting brew that goes down really easy. I don’t put any sugar in this tea, but it still tastes very sweet. I gather that the sweet sensation is some kind of trick that cinnamon oils play on your mouth, given that there isn’t supposed to be much real sugar in cinnamon sticks (which are dried tree bark).

Over the past 6 months I had gotten into the habit of drinking a small cup of cold-brewed black coffee right after dinner, sometimes with a few cookies (I drank the coffee cold, but would warm up the cookies a little in the stove or microwave — a nice little desert). I am really sensitive to caffeine and coffee in the evening definitely keeps me up well into the small hours. But I was using decaf, and so I seemed to get to sleep OK after I finally hit the pillow (but as to sometimes waking up too early, that remained and still remains an issue with me).

Nevertheless, I had a doctors checkup coming, so I started taking my blood pressure to see if there were any issues with that. If things are ok, my pressure will dip down quite a bit after dinner, even after my stomach finishes digesting things at around 8:30 (surprisingly, blood pressure goes down for most people while digesting food; even though the heart is working to help the stomach do its thing, enough water is absorbed out of the blood and into the stomach and intestines during this time so as to lower overall blood pressure). My blood pressure crawls down throughout the evening, and by bedtime it often is only a few points higher than 90-over-60. Of course by 5 or 6 am, it starts shooting up to daytime levels.

Well, I hadn’t checked my evening levels much since I started my little after-dinner cafe ritual, so I was surprised to see that “the big dip” was no longer happening. My pressure was still ok for a mid-morning or afternoon reading, but it was clearly higher than it had been after sunset. Was it the coffee? I went cold-turkey for a few days on the java (since I’m a vegetarian I can’t really eat turkey), and guess what? It definitely was the coffee that was raising my pressure a bit. It probably wasn’t really dangerous, but still . . . I wanted to find something to drink after dinner with my cookies that would be just as satisfying as the cold-brewed coffee was. Yes, I know about Teeccino (a coffee-like no-caffeine herbal tea that doesn’t exactly taste and smell like coffee, but it comes pretty close), and I drink a cup of it at least once a week. But Teeccino is a little bit expensive, around $10 for 10 bags (and each bag is only good for a small cup, akin to the amount of cold-brewed coffee I was drinking at night). Licorice tea can be satisfying once in a while with a small desert, but I really wanted to have some of that cinnamon tea that I had experimented with from the bag of sticks.

So I boiled up a batch of cinnamon stick tea and poured a little cup, and oh boy, it really did hit the spot (I like it hot, unlike the cold coffee I was drinking). And then when I took my evening blood pressure, guess what? Back down to the pre-coffee days. Problem solved, just need to make sure that I order a bag of cinnamon sticks now and then.

Except . . . I did a little bit of internet searching on cinnamon tea, and guess what? Most of the commonly used varieties of cinnamon (cassia) have a potentially significant amount of coumarin in them. Coumarin is considered to be toxic to the liver, and in sufficient quantities can cause liver cancer in certain sensitive individuals. In 1954, it was banned by the U.S Food and Drug Administration after researchers found that it caused liver damage in laboratory animals. However, the FDA obviously has not banned cinnamon from use, the idea being that most people don’t ingest very much cinnamon. An occasional shake of cinnamon on cookies or pie would not deliver very much coumarin, as toxins in small amounts are often ignored by the body (or might even do some good via the process of “hormesis“). But at some point, too much cinnamon intake on a regular basis might start having some effect on one’s liver. How much courmarin would my hot tea have?

That’s not an easy question to answer. The USA has not issued any standards on cinnamon and coumarin (probably thanks to effective lobbying by the food and flavoring industry), but the European Union Food Safety Authority is definitely concerned. In 2008 they issued a standard of 0.1 mg of cinnamon-based coumarin per kilogram of body weight. For an average person, that would be about 1 teaspoon of cinnamon per day, containing about 8.8 mg of coumarin (I am about 59 kg so I shouldn’t go over 6 mg of coumarin; thus I need to make that a small teaspoon). Anything more than that and you are getting into the twilight zone regarding liver problems, according to the Europeans. (There was a bit of a stink in Denmark as some of their cookies and pastries have enough cinnamon such that two or three cookies or one cinnamon roll might put you over the limit, and the bakers were ordered to cut back on the cinnamon.)

So where does this leave me with my tea? I had to do some math. Let’s see, 1 gram of cinnamon on average has about 3.2 mg of coumarin (range is roughly 2 to 4.4). An average cinnamon stick weighs about 3.5 grams, I think (given that 8 sticks come to about an ounce, which is about 28.35 grams). So a stick has about 11 mg of coumarin, almost twice my limit. Let’s figure that you need 2 sticks to make a really nice, sweet-tasting cup of cinnamon tea; so if all of the coumarin gets out of the sticks and into the hot water, then even my little cup of hot tea might have a blast of 22 mg of liver poison. Which is over 3 times my daily limit!!!

But wait . . . does all of the coumarin get into the hot water? When you eat ground cinnamon, you definitely ingest all of the coumarin in it. But with cinnamon tea, you throw away the sticks after you steep the tea. How much coumarin gets through the stick and into the water? In today’s information-rich environment, you would think that an answer to that question is easy to find, just fire up your Google or Bing or Yahoo or Ask and you will know in just a few minutes.

Well, guess what? I sure couldn’t find a definitive answer based on hard numbers from actual tests. (I did find a European study which sampled various foods with cinnamon including some store-bought teas flavored with cinnamon; the maximum coumarin concentration was 12mg per liter, or about 3 mg in a cup; but these are basically black teas with some cinnamon flavoring added, not brewed stick tea.) According to several web sites, there should not be a problem at all with stick tea because coumarin is more “fat soluble” than water soluble; one site says that “since coumarin is not water soluble, a water extract of cinnamon will not contain any of the hazardous compounds.” That sounded good, but . . . a little more digging indicated that coumarin is not entirely insoluble in water.

According to Wikipedia, coumarin has a water solubility rate of 0.17g per 100 ml of water. A cup has 236ml, so theoretically you could have 400 g of coumarin floating in a cup of tea — whoa, WAY WAY over the limit!!! But on reading further about solubility rates, this is just the theoretical maximum. A 0.17g per 100ml rate of solubility is still relative low; by comparison, boiling water could hold up to 66 grams of caffeine per 100ml of water.

Not that it usually does; an average cup of hot coffee has 95 mg of caffeine, although some robust brews go up to 200 or more. Still, even 200 mg is just 0.2 grams, compared to the theoretical saturation maximum of 66 x 2.36 grams per cup for caffeine. Not all of the caffeine in a coffee bean makes it into the water; one guess is that about 80% gets dissolved and 20% stays behind in the grinds, despite the high relative solubility of caffeine in hot water.

With a much lower overall solubility rating in water compared to caffeine, I’m going to guess that a smaller fraction of coumarin gets out of the cinnamon stick and into the hot tea water. (An additional safety factor for coumarin in a cinnamon stick versus caffeine in ground coffee regards the amount of surface area exposed to water; the reason why coffee beans are ground is because you want as much of the bean exposed to water as possible, so as to get as much coffee flavor and caffeine out from the beans. A cinnamon stick is closer in that respect to a whole coffee bean than to ground coffee, i.e. less overall exposure to water.) But even if it is 50%, that still puts 11mg of coumarin in my tea, which is over my 6g limit. We would need to get the ratio down closer to 30%. How can we do that?

Well, the caffine numbers above were for boiling water. At room temperature, caffine solubility goes down from 66 to 16 grams per 100ml. According to Joseph Rivera, who claims to be a “coffee scientist” (he was the Director of Science and Technology for the Specialty Coffee Association of America), cold-brewed coffee will have “significantly less” caffeine than an equivalent hot-brewed coffee, given the same amount of ground beans and water. However, since most cold-brews use less water per cup of ground coffee, they give just as much of a caffeine hit if not more.

OK, so if we avoid the boiling water and just let the cinnamon sticks steep in luke-warm water for a few days, we might get the coumarin down to roughly safe levels. Another factor to consider: coumarin melts at 160 degrees F, which is quite a bit under the 212 degrees of boiling water. If you put a cinnamon stick in boiling water, the coumarin inside the stick is going to melt, and it seems logical that it would then have an easy time seeping through the pores in the stick and finding its way into the water. If you stay under 160 degrees and the coumarin remains solid and thus embedded in the stick material, your odds of staying in a safe zone for coumarin would seem much better.

I am NOT making any guarantees here, because I am NOT a doctor or a scientist, and I do NOT have any good hard test data. But, I think the following can be said: if you want to drink tea made from cinnamon sticks, then you should avoid boiling water and instead “cold brew” your sticks. It will definitely take longer — I have experimented with that, and it takes a few days to get a robust cinnamon flavor with that lovely sweetness when you use room-temperature water. But I think it is worth the effort if you plan to drink this stuff on a regular basis, and wish to minimize the danger that you are poisoning your liver with coumarin!

Before I go, let’s talk about the “Ceylon cinnamon” option. So far I have been talking about common cinnamon, which comes from the cassia tree grown mostly in Indonesia or Vietnam (the Vietnamese stuff is supposed to have the highest coumarin concentration; but it also has a greater hit of all the other good stuff that you like about cinnamon — turns out that my sticks were from Vietnam!). The cinnamon snobs of the world look down on cassia, and say that Ceylon cinnamon is the “real cinnamon” or “true cinnamon”.

It turns out that the Ceylon variety has very little coumarin, maybe around 1/100th the concentration that the cassia varieties have. So you can pretty much scarf that stuff down without worrying about your liver. Problem solved, right?

Once again, wrong. First of all, both ground Ceylon and Ceylon sticks are expensive, around four times as expensive as the cassia versions that you commonly see in your supermarket spice aisle. And most supermarkets don’t even have Ceylon cinnamon. You need to find a specialty store or go on line to buy it; Walmart has it on their web site at $13 for the usual 2 ounce bottle. A similar bottle of cassia in the supermarket is around $3. It’s even worse for Ceylon cinnamon sticks. I recently bought a pound bag of ground Ceylon via Amazon. Supposedly you can take a teaspoon of Ceylon powder and mix it with a cup of hot water for a spot of tea. Well, I tried that and guess what? I did NOT think that it was as good as the cassia stuff that I had been drinking! It didn’t have the sweetness, and even the basic cinnamon flavors seemed more “earthy” and muted. Not bad, but not the “mom’s apple pie” cinnamon flavor that I had grown up with!!

Actually, there is a compromise that I am trying, one that might make a decent cup of cinnamon tea even safer for the liver. I am experimenting with a weaker, more dilute cold-brewed cassia tea, which will have a lower coumarin concentration because of more water dilution. Then, to get the flavor up to snuff when I’m ready to drink it, I mix in maybe a half teaspoon or so of the Ceylon powder, before I nuke the tea cup in the microwave (without any sticks in it, of course). You still get some of that lovely cassia sweetness, and the extra Ceylon powder boosts the overall flavor concentrations up to acceptable levels. So, maybe a hybrid Ceylon powder / cassia cold-brewed stick tea is a safe way to get a nice, satisfying cup of cinnamon tea, something that can stand up to coffee in terms of the “flavor hit” to the mouth.

Again, I’m offering my thoughts here, but don’t depend on me for medical advice. I don’t guarantee that if you do what I am doing, your liver will be absolutely safe. For now, I’m satisfied that my own liver is probably safe with a cold brew option, especially if some Ceylon is mixed in. BUT don’t rely on me for advice here, you have to do your own research (including discussing this with your doctor especially if you have any sort of liver conditions or symptoms) and make your own decision.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:39 pm      

  1. Jim, I have to admit that I tend not to spend a lot of time figuring out what to eat, even when to eat. Well, maybe I’ve got the “when” down (kind of on a schedule); but as to the “what”: Don’t spend much time on it and never really have.

    Much of my life has been spent with other people cooking for me as I worked. That system worked for us. I generally ate whatever was put in front of me, from childhood on up.

    There were a couple of periods of time when I DID do a lot of cooking. One of the times was when I was young, and I’m sure the cooking I did was miserable and I pity those who had to eat it.

    The other time I spent a lot of time and energy on cooking was because of other people and what they might like to eat; I just ate what they wanted to eat. I made a serious effort to make healthful meals at the time.

    One thing I DO know is that drinking coffee or anything with caffeine in it will keep a person awake at night. (And it can be amazing what things have caffeine in them: Mountain Dew is a “who’d’ve thunk” it had caffeine to me; but it’s LOADED with caffeine. (I doubt you drink much of that.) Coffee and caffeine drinks are helpful when one needs to work at night, which I did for about 20 years. These days they have all these power drinks, which are basically straight caffeine.

    Another thing I do know is that it’s “dangerous” to “fiddle” with herbs as some kind of “health” and/or healing food. Herbs were the medicines in the days before doctors and science. At one point in life I did a bit of study on herbs; I soon abandoned that study as I found out that there was a reason that not everybody in the days before doctors could be consulted on which herbs to take for what ailment. To study and know which herbs were effective for what takes about as much study as is required of medical doctors these days. I did not intend to substitute herbs for present day meds, so I soon decided that this was not a field I would be interested in pursuing at any length.

    What I truly DID find out in that tiny bit of herb study I did was that it’s not wise to “fool around” with any kind of herbs and even some foods.

    I certainly can appreciate your wanting something sweet with a little spice to it. In your position I’d probably end up eating a piece of hard cinnamon candy and see if that did the trick. But I know you like numbers and all the figuring out of how much of something or other is in cinnamon; so I can appreciate the effort you put into getting the dose of cinnamon that’s best for good health.

    Otherwise, I take the easy way out when it comes to a situation where I have to figure out what to eat: I ask myself, “what do I feel like eating?” I have a great deal of trust in following what the body may want; the body is telling me what to eat. I’ve particularly found that if I’m hungry and don’t have a clue of what I want to eat, then I NEED to eat green veggies. Being hungry and not knowing what will fill that hunger need is a sure indication of a need for green veggies. So, I will then eat something green. Whatever happens to be handy usually will fit the bill as long as it’s green.

    I SHOULD say that I do have a weakness that is a really serious weakness: I MUST have something “sweet” (and I mean SWEET) FOR A DESSERT after every meal. A meal without something sweet is not a meal as far as I am concerned. I’ve been that way my entire life. I’ve wondered what I’d do should I become diabetic; but I figure I’d just quit sweet cold turkey. (I DO eat meat [but not much red meat]); I’ve quit a lot of things cold turkey, and it’s amazing how simple it can be. All one has to do is get used to it. I’ve figured out that often the tastes we have are acquired. Eat enough of something, and a person will begin to like it.

    Well, I hope you enjoy your cinnamon tea, get the right “lack of” coumarin, and enjoy your spicy/sweet tea. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 17, 2016 @ 1:59 pm

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