The Cinnamon Challenge is this millennium’s version of your mother admonishing you with, “If someone tells you to jump off a cliff, would you?,” for taking on a dare from your friends.
The challenge — attempting to swallow a tablespoon of cinnamon powder in 60 seconds without liquids — isn’t just painful. According to a paper published yesterday in the journal Pediatrics, cinnamon misuse was cited in almost 200 calls to U.S. poison control centers during the first half of 2012 with 30 of these cases requiring medical attention.
The corresponding author, Dr. Steven E. Lipshultz of the University of Miami School of Medicine, suggests that the combination of cinnamon’s caustic chemical and undigestible cellulose matrix makes the practice particularly damaging to the lungs.
Yes, the ingestion of the powder invariably stimulates the gag reflex followed by inhalation of the powder that’s stuck inside the mouth and throat. The pain then causes rapid exhalation characterized by “dragon breath” upon blowing the powder out. Good times.
The complete PDF of this Pediatrics report is currently available online without a subscription.
The idea of the challenge has circulated for years but has intensified with the popularity of YouTube, especially in the last three years. The oldest YouTube video documenting such a challenge was uploaded on April 2, 2006. Pre-YouTube, the Cinnamon Challenge was first documented on the web by Michael Buffington as it was played by Erik Goodlad on December 21, 2001, according to KnowYourMeme.com. The CC2K1 was then reported by Jason Kottke on December 22, 2001. Buffington’s original URL is no longer active but is archived at his current site, collusioni.st.
So if it’s not already apparent, why shouldn’t you take the Cinnamon Challenge?
1. “Natural ” is not always safe. Just because cinnamon is a naturally-occurring spice — it’s harvested from the dried bark of several Cinnamomum tree species — doesn’t mean it can’t be harmful. Cinnamon is deemed safe for consumption as a food additive under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s classification of Generally Recognized As Safe, or GRAS, list. But the FDA is silent on spice inhalation.
2. Cinnamaldehyde rhymes with formaldehyde. The chemical that gives cinnamon its characteristic smell and zing is known as cinnamic aldehyde, or cinnamaldehyde. This means there’s a part of the chemical that acts like formaldehyde that binds and “fixes” human tissue. Do you remember smelling formaldehyde in your high school biology class when dissecting some dead animal? That’s what cinnamaldehyde can do in high concentrations. (Okay, I’m being overly dramatic here. It’s #3 that’s the biggest health problem).
3. Cinnamon is ground tree bark. So not only are you inhaling a tissue fixative, you’re also inhaling powdered bark. That’s why it’s difficult to spit out or, more importantly, get out of your lungs. The cellulose matrix of tree bark acts like a sustained release medicine, but in this case releasing a painful and damaging chemical. The body cannot metabolize cellulose. That’s probably okay for the stuff that’s swallowed. It’ll only burn tomorrow morning at potty time. But the stuff in the lungs is hard to expire. In my grandfather’s day, inhaling coal dust led to a condition called black lung. In my father’s day, people would get a lung cancer called mesothelioma from inhaling asbestos fibers. In 1984, a paper in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine detailed the lung disease and hair and weight loss in Sri Lankan spice workers who process cinnamon quills.
4. Only doing it once can trigger an asthma attack. Doing it once won’t cause any of these chronic illnesses — probably. This 1995 paper in the Indian Journal of Medical Research shows that rats given a single intratracheal dose of cinnamon powder can develop severe lung damage a month later. In humans, inhaling cinnamon powder even once could at least cause an asthma attack, or uncontrollable spasms and narrowing of the bronchioles. While I haven’t yet seen any reports of deaths associated with the Cinnamon Challenge, I would never attempt doing this because I have a history of asthma and try to steer away from anything that might trigger a fatal asthma attack. In fact, I really don’t care for non-fatal asthma attacks. You shouldn’t either.
5. Just because you saw it on YouTube, does that mean you should do it?
That’s what my generation is currently telling their kids.
Friends don’t let friends do the Cinnamon Challenge.