The Cinnamon Challenge: On Being Charged with #Chemophobia

Consider cinnamaldehyde.

Consider cinnamaldehyde.

As many of you are likely to have heard yesterday, a paper from Steven Lipshultz, MD, at the University of Miami appeared in the journal Pediatrics detailing poison control center reports on an adolescent misadventure called The Cinnamon Challenge. The challenge: to swallow a teaspoon of cinnamon powder in 60 seconds without any liquids. The practice has been rummaging about the internet since 2001 but really took off on YouTube over the last three years. Lipshultz's report discusses the risks of such tomfoolery, particularly due to the inhalation of cinnamon powder while one is choking. I planned to write about this practice both here and at my blog since I thought both chemists and the general public would be interested in the topic. I wrote the Forbes post earlier this morning and drew a series of comments from a kindly San Diego-area chemist who took issue with my facetious comparison of cinnamaldehyde (cinnamic aldehyde) to formaldehyde. While Lipshultz states that much of the acute pulmonary toxicity of cinnamon powder is likely due to the cellulose content, I submit that some damage could be due to protein adducts formed by cinnamaldehyde. Yes, yes, it's not as dangerous as formaldehyde. But even at roughly 1% (w/w) in the powder, I hypothesize that the cinnamaldehyde could cause epithelial damage. Also note that cinnamaldehyde is not just any aldehyde but rather an unsaturated aldehyde. That makes me think of acrolein. The experiments have not been done. But one animal study has been published showing that intratracheal administration of cinnamon powder -- not pure cinnamaldehyde -- can cause acute lung injury in rats and trigger pulmonary fibrosis within a month. Alas, my concerns about cinnamaldehyde rubbed two commenters the wrong way and one, well, sought to chemsplain me. I was originally trained in toxicology so I know the whole Paracelsan story that the dose makes the poison (to which I'd also add "route of administration"). But do you chemists, especially those in chemical toxicology, think that I'm overreacting (as it were) to the potentially reactive nature of cinnamaldehyde in inhaled cinnamon powder? I'm willing to be corrected if I appear to suffer from #chemophobia. But I hypothesize that 1% (w/w) cinnamaldehyde can be cytotoxic.

Author: David Kroll

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  1. I am not a toxicologist, nor a medicinal chemist, but…

    I would think it would be reasonable to be concerned about inhaling enough of an alpha-beta unsaturated aldehyde into my lungs (as opposed to the oral route, where you have a little bit more metabolic capability.) I believe that both aldehydes and Michael acceptors are ‘structural alerts.’ One would imagine that sufficient, regular dosing would generate some interesting biological activity (desired or undesired.)

    Also, I think the dude was trolling; he can be profitably ignored.

  2. I’m actually going to disagree with my friend, David, on this one. As I was reading it, I thought “he’s exploiting some chemophobia here!” I certainly think you were writing with the best intentions (and not actively trying to be chemophobic). But it’s an easy trap to fall in to. I actually agree with the reader on this one …

  3. first: no, I don’t think you’re being chemophobic.

    I do wonder how helpful it is to compare one aldehyde to another. for example, these two in question are pretty different molecules: formaldehyde is a fairly simple and well-documented toxic molecule. cinnamaldehyde just happens to share a functional group (the aldehyde bit), and usually aldehydes have a scent to them, so often when we smell things (like flowers), we’re actually inhaling the aldehyde molecules.

    that said: I always assumed the REAL health concern with this bizarre behavior was the fact that people are SWALLOWING FINELY GROUND TREE BARK. If this were the “talcum powder challenge,” the “turmeric challenge,” or the “cork challenge” (if preferred to keep with a tree bark theme), participants would still get a lungful of something we’re not meant to inhale. I don’t think it’s any safer to suck in a mouthful of ground thyme than ground cinnamon. Since cinnamon is delicious, I suspect it’s easier to get dimwits to attempt such a cockamamie idea with something that’s not as foul-tasting as onion powder.

    It doesn’t much matter if it’s high in cellulose, or low in aldehydes, inhaling a teaspoon of particulate matter of any kind will cause damage. I’m curious to know what ground cinnamon looks like under a microscope (I suppose I could google it)… is it jagged? Irregular? Large? Crystalline? I say it’s safe to say it’s UNSAFE to inhale, though, and that’s without even addressing the specific chemical composition of the mixture being inhaled in the first place.

    Health and safety risks of inhalation exposure to the aldehyde component of cinnamon are just the delicious-smelling icing on the cake of stupid known as “the cinnamon challenge.”

    PS: The fact that we have to discuss the science of “the cinnamon challenge” makes me laugh and cry at the same time. 😉

  4. Let me clarify on why I think you were playing to chemophobia. (And, to note, we all know you’re not chemophobic. But if this post had been written by Joe Schmoe instead of David Kroll, I think that lots of people would have been crying “CHEMOPHOBIC!!”) All of this is to say that your conjecture on the effects of cinnamaldehyde are not based on any data for this molecule and, importantly, your conjecture isn’t warranted by any amount of cinnamaldehyde that you would ever be exposed to.
    1) The title of point two: “Cinnamaldehyde rhymes with formaldehyde” Classic chemophobic ploy to drive sensationalism by comparing compounds (one that we don’t know and one that we’re frightened of).
    2) There are plenty of aldehydes in all of the food that we eat. Should we stop eating apples because they contain formaldehyde? Again, you give no dosages. You are only selling sensationalism with this section.
    3) Again, you use the sensationalism of bad experiences in high school biology to turn people on cinnaminaldehyde.

    Matt Herper argued that you got chemophobics to read about chemistry. My argument to that is that you also supported their reflexive chemophobia. Really, David, this isn’t so bad. But, as I said earlier, had someone else written this exact article (and put it up on HuffPo or a similar sight), I think that us chemophobe-police would have been more upset.