"What will my kid think of next?!" cried the caller at the other end of my phone. "My son tried to swallow a gob of cinnamon, is this dangerous?" My first thought was, what the heck (actually I used another word) is going on? Then I recalled the recent resurgence of the "Cinnamon Challenge," the latest YouTube craze where contestants attempt to gulp a teaspoon of cinnamon. Few are successful and some end up in the hospital.
For years, eating bizarre things has been a teenage right of passage. Mid century America was besieged with college students wolfing down live goldfish. The latest craze, that of attempting to swallow a teaspoon of cinnamon without vomiting or inhaling, began in the early 2000's. Recent YouTube postings of such behavior have topped the million mark and beyond, and kids all over the country are trying to win this game...without much success.
The goal is to swallow a teaspoon of cinnamon in sixty seconds...sounds simple enough, until we consider the properties of cinnamon. Cinnamon comes from tree bark and ground cinnamon, while a fine powder, is rough. It's characteristic pungent, tongue warming flavor and unmistakable aroma derive from potent aromatic essential oils, aldehydes, alcohols and terpinoids; these chemicals are said to have medicinal properties ranging from antioxidant activity to antiviral activity in cell experiments. Further an NIH study showed that cinnamon can improve glucose and lipid levels in some people with type II diabetes. However, the latter benefits did not require consuming a teaspoon in sixty seconds. Cinnamon tastes hot because the essential oils irritate the nerve endings within the taste buds; once in the mouth, the desire for cooling water is strong.
So getting back to why the "Challenge" is so challenging. Cinnamon bark is hard to swallow because it is a rough powder that isn't miscible in water; the mouth cannot produce enough saliva to lubricate the bolus and hence one ends up with "cinnamud." Plus the extremely hot taste irritates the inner mouth making it likely that the contestant will spew brown powder all over their immediate surroundings within seconds of consumption.
Leaving cinnamon in the mouth or oral cavity too long can cause swelling, blisters, mouth sores and irritated gums. Further, if the fine powder is inhaled, there is concern that it may trigger asthma attacks or severe coughing spells that render breathing difficult. Small children who try this stunt may be at risk for choking; when a ball of cinnamud is created, it has the potential to lodge in the airway, thus causing a choking hazard.
To date, no deaths have been reported however, there have been isolated reports of medical emergencies related to cinnamon allergies. Allergies to cinnamic aldehyde are not uncommon and can produce skin irritation, mouth sores and in rare instances, throat swelling and anaphylactic shock.
Cinnamon may have numerous health benefits, including improved cognitive function, but consuming it as a teaspoon bolus isn't smart. So if you spy that your cinnamon is missing from your spice rack and you have a teen in the house, it might be time to have talk about the potential dangers of this fad.