For centuries, cinnamon has been used to enhance the flavor of foods, but new research shows that the spice could also help make foods safer.
According to a study by Meijun Zhu and Lina Sheng, food safety scientists at Washington State University in Pullman, the ancient cooking spice could help prevent some of the most serious foodborne illnesses caused by pathogenic bacteria.
Zhu and Sheng studied concentrated, or essential, oil extracted from the cassia variety of cinnamon – the most popular type for cooking in the United States. Cassia cinnamon has a stronger, spicier flavor compared to Ceylon, the second most popular variety, which the scientists did not test. Bakers and aficionados argue about the relative quality and best uses of the two varieties.
The cassia cinnamon oil successfully killed several strains of E. coli that produce a substance called the Shiga toxin. These Shiga-toxin-producing varieties of E. coli causes approximately 110,000 cases of foodborne illness each year in the United States, ranging in severity from mild diarrhea to life-threatening hemorrhagic colitis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Varieties of cinnamon have historically been used for medicinal purposes, with many ancient societies utilizing the cooking spice for conditions such as respiratory and digestive problems, loss of appetite and diabetes, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Zhu said cinnamon has previously been reported as one of the most effective essential oils for killing or inhibiting microorganisms. Specifically, cassia cinnamon oil has been found to kill other foodborne pathogens as well, including strains of salmonella and listeria.
Zhu and Sheng’s findings, which were published online in the journal Food Control, suggest cassia cinnamon oil can work effectively as a natural antibacterial agent in the food industry. The study, which spanned about a year, involved adding drops of the cinnamon essential oil to mediums, such as nutritionally rich Luria broth, and assessing its effectiveness in inhibiting the growth of Shiga-toxin-producing bacteria.
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