If you’ve been watching the media, you might’ve picked up on some good news. Apparently, cinnamon is good for weight loss.
Hundreds of headlines screaming out the message that “This simple spice can help you lose weight”. It’s been covered everywhere from the International Business Times, who said that “ Cinnamon is your best companion to fight obesity, study suggests” to Women’s Health, who headlined with “ The Fat Burning Food You Should Be Adding To Your Breakfast”.
It’s one of those wonderful news stories that keeps coming around. There’s a boring, everyday item — in this case a household spice — that researchers have discovered is actually the key to good health. The story writes itself! All you have to do to lose that ill-health-causing fat is eat a bit more cinnamon, and you life will instantly improve.
Except, well, it won’t.
I’ve talked about the hierarchy of evidence before. Briefly, it goes from expert opinion — one person’s thoughts on a subject — to large, well-conducted trials with thousands of participants called randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Then, at the very peak, you’ve got systematic reviews, where a group of researchers have trawled through all the studies done on a subject and looked at the evidence in totality.
To justify all this news coverage, you’d hope for a systematic review.
You’d settle for a large RCT.
You might, in a pinch, be comfortable with a less well-controlled trial — something called a cohort study — or even perhaps a retrospective (looking backwards) case-control.
What you wouldn’t expect is a study done on some cells in a petri dish.
Sadly, that is exactly what we’ve got.
Yes, this is yet another story about lab-bench data being extrapolated into the real world. Some researchers took adipocytes — fat cells —from mice and humans, and treated them with a chemical extracted from cinnamon called cinnamaldehyde.
Basically, the cinnamaldehyde caused these fat cells to start burning more energy. The researchers concluded that it is a promising possible pathway to developing therapeutic drugs for human obesity.
In other words, not that amazing a finding at all.
The sad thing is that there is actually evidence that cinnamon might be beneficial for human health. A recent systematic review found that doses of cinnamon between 1 and 6 grams a day might help reduce cholesterol in patients with diabetes. It’s no wonder drug, but that’s better than 99% of the nonsense supplements you find on supermarket shelves.
But this study didn’t look at human health at all.
The most recent slew of headlines is just another story of journalistic excitement over a preliminary study that means very little to your life. I’ve talked about it before with red wine and chocolate. It’s not that this study is useless, just that it doesn’t mean what the media thinks it means.
About 8% of these pre-clinical trials make it to the stage where they are being tested on humans. An even smaller number make it to licensed medications or supplements. The chances that this will be the cure for obesity are extremely slim.
What’s much more likely is that we are going to end up with yet another potentially useful treatment that turned out to be nothing more than wishful thinking. It has happened with everything from turmeric to resveratrol.
It’s unlikely that something as ubiquitous as cinnamon has a massive impact on human health, because we would’ve noticed that by now. If there is a benefit, it’s probably going to be small, and only in very high doses — one of the studies that found a benefit from taking cinnamon supplements had people on 6 grams a day. That’s more than a fifth of your average supermarket cinnamon container.
In other words, loads.
But ultimately, this study doesn’t provide any evidence that cinnamon is useful at all. It is an interesting starting point, a springboard for new research, not a definitive answer to a question.
Bottom line: if there’s no evidence tested in actual human people, it pays to be skeptical.
Cinnamon is great in apple pies.
The jury is out on whether it can help with obesity.