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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The holiday season is flavored with many spices: nutmeg, ginger, peppermint, and cinnamon, as we mentioned. It turns out adding cinnamon to our hot cider and cookies may contribute more than just festive flavor.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you spend a few bucks on the grocery store variety of cinnamon, you've got a little jar that's loaded with intense flavor. Chef John Crictchely, of the D.C. restaurant Bourbon Steak, is a big fan of cinnamon.

JOHN CRICTCHELY: So we're using a Saigon cinnamon, which is most beloved for its fragrant aroma.

AUBREY: Cinnamon comes from the bark of trees. It's long been considered a medicinal plant. There are a bunch of different types harvested from southern China to Southeast Asia.

I'm going to get it a little whiff.

CRICTCHELY: Yup. Go for it. It's very aromatic.

AUBREY: Oh, wow.

CRICTCHELY: And it's got some good heat to it too.

AUBREY: In Crictchely's view, cinnamon is underutilized. Lots of people think of it as a spice you only add to sweets.

CRICTCHELY: It really has many more uses than just your pumpkin pie.

AUBREY: Take for instance what he's whipping up today: a spinach salad with pine nuts, raisins and cinnamon. Along with a lamb-loin covered in an herb and cinnamon rub.

So this is our lamb loin.

Should we give it a go?

CRICTCHELY: Sure.

AUBREY: The cinnamon rub, Crictchely says, will coax lots of flavor out of the lamb. But it turns out there's much more to cinnamon than adding flavor to food. This pungent spice is chock-full of health-promoting compounds.

For years there have been hints that adding cinnamon to your diet can help control blood sugar. And a recent spate of studies adds to the evidence that the effect is real.

Researcher Paul Davis of the University California, Davis is the author of a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food.

PAUL DAVIS: Yes, according to our meta-analysis, it does work. Cinnamon does lower fasting blood-glucose.

AUBREY: The reason that this is important is that in addition to the nearly 25 million Americans who already have diabetes, there are another 80 million Americans - that's nearly one in four of us - that have unhealthy levels of fasting blood-glucose, also known as blood sugar.

Doctors refer to this as pre-diabetes, meaning blood sugar isn't high enough to meet the cut-off for a diagnosis of diabetes, but it puts these people at high risk of developing the disease.

CRICTCHELY: Now, it's not clear exactly how cinnamon helps the body regulate blood sugar. But the process goes something like this...

AUBREY: When people develop pre-diabetes or diabetes, their bodies become less efficient at responding to insulin. And insulin is the key to getting sugar out of the bloodstream and into places in the body where it's used for fuel.

DAVIS: And the problem is when insulin sensitivity is out of whack, those processes become out of balance, and things go to where they don't really need to go.

AUBREY: So how does cinnamon help? Well, it seems to help the cells in the body become more responsive to insulin.

Now, Davis says, on its own the power of cinnamon to lower blood sugar is not huge.

DAVIS: I mean according to our results, it's a modest effect. It's maybe three to five percent. But that's about the level of some of the older generation anti-diabetic drugs.

AUBREY: For people who already have diabetes, it's not an alternative to medication. But for those with pre-diabetes who are interested in using diet to manage their blood sugar, experts like Emmy Suhl of the Joslin Diabetes Center say it's one of many strategies that are worth considering.

EMMY SUHL: If they want to try it, they're welcome to because, you know, it's perfectly safe, it's inexpensive.

AUBREY: The big question is: How much do you need, and how often? Suhl says she's not convinced the studies have answered these questions.

SUHL: The evidence is still inconclusive.

AUBREY: It could be as little as a quarter of a teaspoon a day up to a whole teaspoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD SIZZLING)

AUBREY: And this takes us back to John Crictchely's kitchen, at the Bourbon Steak Restaurant, where he's searing that cinnamon covered lamb in a skillet.

CRICTCHELY: So we're going to let that go for about three minutes a side, and we'll have a nice lunch.

AUBREY: We're going to have a nice little lunch here.

There's about a quarter of a teaspoon of cinnamon per serving in this lamb.

It's so good.

CRICTCHELY: Great.

It's not screaming cinnamon, it's just sort of screaming flavor.

That's the goal.

AUBREY: Add to this, the cinnamon in the spinach salad. With these two dishes and maybe a little cinnamon sprinkled on your oatmeal in the morning, you could be taking a worthwhile step towards controlling your blood sugar.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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