Cinnamon is a common holiday spice with surprising fat-burning properties, new research suggests.
Pumpkin pie, mulled wine, hot chocolate, and eggnog — these are just a handful of the foods and drinks that make the holidays such a truly delicious time.
But if you're worried that such yummy treats could make you pack on the extra pounds, worry no more! These enticing foods also contain cinnamon, and new research bears some good news: the common holiday spice could help you to burn fat.
The new study comes from the University of Michigan (UM) Life Sciences Institute (LSI) in Ann Arbor, and the research was led by Jun Wu, a research assistant professor at the LSI and an assistant professor of molecular and integrative physiology at the UM Medical School.
Wu and colleagues set out to examine the effect of cinnamaldehyde on human fat cells. Speaking about the motivation for her study, Wu says, "Scientists were finding that this compound affected metabolism."
Previous studies in mice had already shown that cinnamaldehyde helps to fight off obesity and hyperglycemia. "So," Wu continues, "we wanted to figure out how — what pathway might be involved, what it looked like in mice, and what it looked like in human cells."
To do this, the researchers treated adipocytes, or fat cells, from both mice and humans with the compound. Their findings were published in the journal Metabolism.
Cinnamon triggers fat-burning process
The experiments revealed that cinnamaldehyde has a direct effect on fat cells. In a process known as thermogenesis, the compound makes the adipocytes start burning the fat that they had been storing.
Adipocytes store lipids, which can then be burned for energy. The cells evolved to help our bodies use energy resources effectively during times when such resources might be scarce, such as through a cold winter or famine.
"It's only been relatively recently that energy surplus has become a problem. Throughout evolution, the opposite — energy deficiency — has been the problem. So any energy-consuming process usually turns off the moment the body doesn't need it," Wu explains.
The study authors think that cinnamon might be one such way to turn thermogenesis on. In their research, they found a higher expression of certain genes and enzymes that boost lipid metabolism in the adipocytes treated with cinnamaldehyde.
Additionally, they found a higher level of Ucp1 and Fgf21, which are regulatory proteins that help to induce thermogenesis.
Cinnamon may be better than drugs
In the study paper, Wu and team conclude, "Given the wide usage of cinnamon in the food industry, the notion that this popular food additive, instead of a drug, may activate thermogenesis, could ultimately lead to therapeutic strategies against obesity that are much better adhered to by participants."
The lead researcher emphasizes this conclusion.
"Cinnamon has been part of our diets for thousands of years, and people generally enjoy it [...] So if it can help protect against obesity, too, it may offer an approach to metabolic health that is easier for patients to adhere to."
So, this holiday season, we're probably safe to add a bit more cinnamon — but not a massive amount — to our festive food.
The researchers caution that more research is needed to figure out the perfect way to use cinnamaldehyde to trigger thermogenesis without causing any side effects.