Autumn is one of my favorite seasons—not for crisp air or the dusting of snow on the mountain peaks— but for the warm and spicy aromas flowing out of homes and stores. My favorite bakery is featuring their gingerbread again– the scent of ginger and cinnamon from their baking permeates the air! ( I bet the cooking class at the kitchen goods store is filling the mall with the sage-and-thyme scent of turkey stuffing too!) But alas, today my foodie daydream is interrupted by reality: I’m on my way to the gym– an effort to avoid gaining weight this holiday season!

One reason weight gain is problematic this time of year, is because many traditional holiday spices pair well with sugar. Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and cloves, are all in this group. Some of these spices, when used liberally, are well known for bothering sensitive bladders too. Many of us can take small amounts of certain ones though, and each person has their own sensitivity profile. For instance, I might be just fine with loads of nutmeg, but you may not tolerate even the tiniest bit of it. Spice sensitivities are one of those things that each of us has to work out individually for ourselves.

The spice plan – substitution vs. reduction

It helps to work out a plan for your holiday recipes in advance so you can enjoy the family get-together without a bladder flare-up. Before totally giving up on your favorites though, try a makeover of them. Just be sure to watch out for the biggest pitfall: dramatically reducing the amount of spice in a recipe. Fats, salt, sugars, acids, and spices give food flavor. Inevitably, reducing the spice reduces the food’s flavor. To compensate for that flavor loss you have to increase the sweetness with more sugary ingredients and/or add more salt and fats. I’ve found that if I have to cut the spice more than one-quarter to one-half the amount, a better strategy is substitution.

One successful tactic is to substitute savory flavors for sweet ones: sweet potatoes, yams, carrots and onions do well with both savory and sweet flavors. We have many more flavor choices when it comes to savory herbs and they are less likely to be bladder burners. Savory herbs include thyme, sage, basil, oregano, rosemary, marjoram, and parsley. For instance, try basil or thyme on roasted carrots instead of the cloves and maple syrup.

Okay, I realize you can’t use parsley in an apple pie, but for those foods that have to be sweet, you can substitute tolerable sweet spices for the bladder burners. If the cloves in pumpkin pie bothers you, try substituting three-quarters as much (milder) allspice. If nutmeg in apple pie bothers you, try substituting Ceylon cinnamon for it. Cinnamon is, in fact, a good place to start when substituting for any sweet spices you can’t tolerate.

Cinnamon and its flavor relatives

Most IC patients don’t have a problem with the small amounts of cinnamon used in holiday foods, and it’s a wonderful substitute for that sure-fire bladder provoker, cloves. And even if you suspect that your bladder pain is provoked by cinnamon, you may still have options to combat symptom flares without totally giving up on it. Understanding a bit about this spice, and others that have the same flavor chemicals, will be helpful.

The grocery store spice we call “cinnamon” today is actually three separate substances, and the difference may be significant for tender IC bladders. All types of cinnamon come from the inner bark of trees historically cultivated in Asia. But their actual chemical composition is different.

Ceylon cinnamon

The most expensive, mildest, and highest quality substance is made from the tree known as Cinnamomum verum and is called “Ceylon cinnamon”, “Cinnamomum zeylanicum” or “true cinnamon”. Its medicinal properties may include a mild antifungal and antibacterial effect (due to the cinnamaldehyde it contains). The scientific evidence for such effects in humans is sketchy though.

Chinese cinnamon

The second substance we call cinnamon comes from the bark of a related tree, Cinnamomum aromaticum, often called “Chinese cinnamon”, “false cinnamon”, or “cassia cinnamon”. The bark of Chinese cinnamon is slightly bitter and has a somewhat stronger taste than that of the Ceylon type. It also tends to be cheaper than Ceylon cinnamon. Cinnamon has long been used in Chinese medicine to treat a wide variety of physical ailments. (This “cassia cinnamon”, by the way, is not related to the strong laxative product sold in stores as “cassia” or “senna”).

There is however, a concern with Chinese cinnamon: in animals, high doses of it have produced liver and kidney damage due to the coumarin it contains. (Coumarin is a plant-produced flavor and scent chemical that the pharmaceutical industry uses to make blood thinners such as warfarin. It is not however, to be confused with the blood thinning drug with the brand name, Coumadin). As a flavor additive in foods, coumarin is outlawed by the FDA for its potential toxicity to humans.

Saigon cinnamon

The third kind of cinnamon is Cinnamomum loureiroi (or Cinnamomum loureirii), usually referred to as “Vietnamese cinnamon.” Also called “Saigon cinnamon” or “Vietnamese cassia”, this is a particularly strong-tasting cinnamon due to its high cinnamaldehyde content. It also is the cheapest to obtain and has the highest coumarin content.
There is a fourth extremely strong kind of cinnamon, Cinnamomum burmanii (Korintje cinnamon). I believe this is the kind Cinnabon uses. Because it’s so hot and powerful, I wouldn’t recommend using it.

Better cinnamon for better bladders

Most of the cinnamon sold in stores today is of the Chinese or Vietnamese types (though not necessarily imported from those countries). These two types have the greatest concentration of flavor from cinnamaldehyde. Therein may lie one of its problems for people with sensitive bladders: Cinnamaldehyde has a moderate tendency to produce allergic reactions and some IC patients react with their bladders to substances they are allergic to.

Cinnamon contains oxalates too, and women who have vulvar pain may want to limit the amount of any cinnamon they consume. High-oxalate foods appear to exacerbate vulvar pain for some people. (In the past, the Vulvar Pain Foundation has recommended that daily consumption of any ground cinnamon be limited to 1-1/2 teaspoons or less.)

All types of cinnamon also contain another substance that IC sufferers might want to take note of: eugenol. Eugenol (eugenic acid) is found in huge amounts in cloves, a notorious bladder burner and gastrointestinal irritant frequently used in holiday foods. But cinnamons have only small amounts of eugenol compared to cloves, and Ceylon cinnamon has the least. This may be yet another reason many people can safely use cinnamon as a substitute for cloves in recipes.
Mild options available

If your extra-sensitive bladder reacts to the typical Chinese or Vietnamese cinnamon, it may be worth it to try the milder, more complex-flavored Ceylon cinnamon. In information published in December 2015 and last updated in November 2016, Consumer Lab purchased several cinnamon spice products and tested them for contaminants and coumarin content. All three of the products listed below passed their heavy metal-, arsenic- and salmonella-contamination test, however the coumarin content varied by the type of cinnamon:

  • Frontier Organic Ceylon cinnamon, ground (Ceylon cinnamon) – 0.1mg coumarin per gram of spice. Price: about $2.50 per ounce and available online through Amazon and specialty organic spice dealers.
  • McCormick ground cinnamon, (Chinese cassia cinnamon) – 3.8mg coumarin per gram of spice. Price: about $0.90 per ounce, in stores and online.
  • Simply Organic cinnamon, ground (Vietnamese cinnamon) – 6.8mg coumarin per gram of spice. Price: about $1.70 per ounce, in store and online.