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Cassia cinnamon with high coumarin contents to be consumed in moderation
BfR bioavailability study confirms risk assessment
Coumarin is a flavouring substance which is found in relatively high concentrations in certain types of cinnamon collectively known as Cassia cinnamon. From use of coumarin as pharmaceutical it is known that even relatively small doses can lead to liver damage in sensitive persons. The value of the Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) was established on the basis of the pure substance, i.e. of isolated coumarin. By conducting studies on the bioavailability of coumarin in the human organism, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has demonstrated that coumarin contained in the plant matrix of cinnamon is absorbed by the body to a similar degree as isolated coumarin. The TDI therefore also applies to coumarin in cinnamon. "The argument that the bioavailability of coumarin from cinnamon is limited to small quantities, because it is absorbed to a lesser degree from the plant matrix is therefore not tenable", says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "Consumers frequently using large quantities of cinnamon as a condiment should therefore opt for the low-coumarin Ceylon cinnamon."
Cinnamon is not only an integral part of Christmas biscuits. Even in and on cakes, rice pudding and other sweet dishes, cinnamon is used as a spice. Essentially, a differentiation must be made between the mild Ceylon cinnamon which comes from Sri Lanka and the somewhat tangier Cassia types which contain higher amounts of coumarin.
The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has updated its opinion on coumarin on the basis of new data. Over the last few years, the BfR has gained new insights through its own research, especially in terms of the bioavailability of and exposure to coumarin. Since 2011, new European maximum levels have applied to coumarin in certain ready-to-eat foods. The Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) of 0.1 mg of coumarin per kg of body weight which can be consumed every day throughout one's life without any adverse health effects continues to apply.
Bioavailability describes how much of a substance is available to the body following consumption. The BfR has studied the relative bioavailability of coumarin by means of a cross-over study. As part of this study, the participants (12 men and 12 women) were given, at different times, both coumarin as an isolated substance and coumarin in various cinnamon applications. This enabled comparison of the behaviour of a substance in the human body. The measurements in the urine and blood were done using a newly developed analytical method with quantification using a deuterium-labelled internal standard. From the results, it can be concluded that coumarin from Cassia cinnamon (as a powder in capsules or in rice pudding) is absorbed almost to the same degree as isolated coumarin.
In 2011, new maximum levels for coumarin in ready-to-eat foods came into effect within the European Union (EU). Even where these maximum levels are reached, exceeding of the TDI is possible only, if very large quantities of cinnamon-containing foods are consumed on a daily basis. For small children with a body weight of 15 kg, the TDI would be reached if they ate 30 g of cinnamon stars (i.e. about 6 small cinnamon stars) or 100 g of gingerbread per day.
For cinnamon sticks and powder as a spice for household use, no limit values have been defined by the European Commission. Since exceeding the TDI by a small degree for one to two weeks can be considered safe, a health risk would only be possible for consumers who eat large quantities of Cassia cinnamon with high coumarin contents over a relatively long period of time. For an adult with a body weight of 60 kg, the TDI is reached, if 2 g of Cassia cinnamon with average coumarin content are consumed per day. For an infant with a body weight of 15 kg, this is the case if 0.5 g of Cassia cinnamon with average coumarin content are consumed per day.
The BfR’s recommendation that Cassia cinnamon with high coumarin contents be consumed in moderation remains unchanged. Consumers who frequently eat large quantities of cinnamon as a spice should therefore opt for the low-coumarin Ceylon cinnamon. In addition, it must be taken into account that coumarin exposure can be increased via other pathways, for example the use of coumarin-containing body care products.
About the BfR
The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV). It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.
BfR Opinion No. 036/2012
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