The science of the Cinnamon Challenge

Last week, lost in a haze of book tour, I found myself at brunch with several friends who were talking about a YouTube meme I'd entirely missed—people attempting to eat whole spoonfuls of cinnamon and failing miserably. (Warning, the video ends in tears and heaving.)

While others wonder "why?" or, perhaps, "why not?", we here at BoingBoing prefer to ask, "No, seriously, how does that work?" Luckily, Jason Bittel at BittelMeThis had the answer. Turns out, humans are generally doomed to fail the Cinnamon Challenge for a very specific scientific reason—we need things to be lubricated in order to swallow them.

The spice that magically transforms dough and sugar into a sticky bun is actually ground up tree bark, which means we’re talking about a lot of water-resistant cellulose. And according to retired physical chemist Vince Calder, the rest is “a mixture of volatile organic compounds, a major component being cinnamanaldehyde, which is not very water soluble.”

If you want to see this in action without risking asphyxiation, put a tablespoon of cinnamon in a bowl and jostle it until the powder is level. Using a straw, allow a drop of water to fall on the surface. Instead of saturating the cinnamon – like it would with sugar – the water just beads up and rolls around like the liquid seed of a rusty T1000.

In a nutshell, all of this means that the Cinnamon Challenge can, in fact, be fairly dangerous.

Read the rest of the story at BittelMeThis.

Video Link



  1. The way to beat the cinnamon challenge is to very carefully put the cinnamon in your mouth and breathe through your nose.  Wait for awhile.  Eventually your mouth will build up enough saliva so that you can swallow it.  It will take awhile, probably longer than the attention span of your friends.  You have to wait and wait and wait.  But it can be done. 

    I don’t know about the liver damage part though, so I wouldn’t recommend it unless you can get lots of people to bet $20 and come out of it with some serious cash.

    1.  This is correct.  I watched a buddy of mine beat the challenge by simply holding the cinnamon in his mouth until he worked up enough saliva to be able to swallow it.  It took damn near 20 min, and it did not appear to be pleasant, but he did it.  This was about 15 years ago (long before the youtube thing), but I’m pretty sure the principle is still valid.

  2. I actually put  ground cinnamon in my coffee and tea  to lower my  blood sugars.Try it if you are insulin resistant,diabetic, I guarantee you will feel the results.I noticed it a few weeks ago:much lower blood sugars before lunch.I also notice though I stir the cinnamon in it sits on top of my hot beverage, insoluble, for the most part.Tastes wonderful too..

    1. Agreed.  Cinnamaldehyde sounds like something Willy Wonka would use to sedate uncooperative oompa loompas.

    2. First thing I was thinking too, Cinnamanaldehyde actually cinnamaldehyde sounds like something you get when you try to preserve cinnamon. 

  3. See, things like this are why Maggie’s post are the most consistently interesting posts on BB.

  4. I thought this was about a stripper at first.
    NPR ran a story about the challenge and how its terrible for you health and for some could lead to pneumonia. i would rather enjoy the spice then be choked by it.

  5. I put cinnamon in my coffee, in which it does not normally dissolve.  The way I get around it is to put in the cup first, and add a couple of drops of vanilla extract.  The alcohol in the extract dissolves the cinnamon.

  6. Cinnamaldehyde is also an insect repellent.  I’ve used cinnamon, sometimes mixed with turmeric, to get rid of ants.   Diatomaceous earth, another substance touted as insecticide and also having some weird properties with water, is supposed to swipe the lipid coating off the insect’s protective coating, don’t know if the cinnamaldehyde works through a similar mechanism.

  7. In case anyone is wondering, cinnamon “trees” don’t look like what we think of as trees.  The tree grows for only a couple of years before being cut back significantly.  You know how creepers can grow from a chopped-down tree or bush?  Well, that’s what cinnamon is: creepers from the original trunk, cut and dried.

    I used to have to walk through a cinnamon orchard to get to the local bathing spigot in a village in southern Sri Lanka.  The cinnamon plants were shorter than me, although not by much.  They’re bush-like, not “trees” per se.

  8. When I was a kid, friends and I would play a tag game in the back yard, but when you got tagged “it”, we made a trip to the kitchen where the other players would concoct a tablespoon of whatever they wanted that you had to eat.  After you attempted to eat it (most failed) then it was back outside for another round.  Just plain cinnamon was stumbled on early in the game and banned unless it was wet down with something (like, say, Worcestershire sauce or pickle juice).

    There are much better things to do with cinnamon, however, like these:

  9. I hope that the health benefits outweigh the toxicity.  My morning oatmeal is the color of chocolate pudding.

    1. Well, at least you won’t have to worry about the aspiration risk, unless you just flat out bombed your last swallow eval.

  10. We used to do the same challenge with a heaping spoonful of chocolate powder.  Easy to convince another to try it since “it’s only yummy chocolate”  :)

  11. I personally beat the challenge the first time easily – as others point out, the trick is to be patient. Your saliva builds up soon enough.

    The sensation is like nothing else I can think of. You put the spoonful in your mouth and think, “Oh, this will be easy!’ and then the thin outer layer of wet paste you created by combining your saliva with the cinnamon powder starts to fall apart and there’s just dry, dry, dry powder behind it. You kinda go through this process of salivating and creating new layers that feel swallowable, but as soon as you disturb the new layer more dry powder falls into place and you have to salivate more to wet THAT layer. You’ll want to chew and move it around, though, because it does shorten the overall time it takes to moisten the full dose of powder. Just moisten, move, moisten, move, separate out a clump of swallowable paste and swallow just a little, then repeat.

    Really, it’s not all that interesting an experience. Five minutes of salivating, twenty if you do it wrong. Lots of better ways to spend your time.

    1. If you want to increase your salivation tenfold, close your eyes and visualize sucking on a lemon slice. Your mouth will be full in a couple of seconds.

  12. Love the Chajkovskij soundtrack!

    When I make French Toast the cinnamon sits atop the eggs and milk until I whip the shit out of it.

  13. I dump a crapload of cinnamon in my rum (the Kraken only!) toddies. It’s amazing what a little alcohol will do for the amount of cinnamon you can consume.

    … I hope cinnamon is healthy, because if not I Am Already Dead.

  14. My wife likes to put ground chili on pieces of chocolate, to make instant chili-chocolate. Yum!
    Once we were out of ground chili, so she tried fineground jalapeno instead. Fail. It’s so fine and light, when you put the chocolate in your mouth, you end up inhaling some of it. 

  15. I didn’t notice myself, but it’s easy to fix:

    While others wonder “why?” or, perhaps, “why not?”, we here at BoingBoing prefer to steal shoes from orphans. But since they didn’t have any left, I figured I could ask “No, seriously, how does that work?”

    There! Now there’s no chance anyone won’t find it morally inferior, which is apparently what we want in our science stories?

    By the way, seconding the note that the name is cinnamaldehyde. It’s one of a whole set of flavor compounds with related to compounds in wood – vanillin (vanilla) and eugenol (cloves) are two more people might like.

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