Cinnamaldehyde (Be aware: your cookie consumption is being watched)

Cinnamaldehyde is a straightforward-looking molecule:


It's the principal odorant in cinnamon. If you're in the Seattle area, your cinnemaldehyde use is being monitored. Drug precursor? Guess again...

Cinnamaldehyde is oxidized in vivo to cinnamic acid, which you excrete in your urine:


Rick Keil at UW has been collecting treated sewage destined for Puget Sound and analyzing it for cinnamic acid (along with other flavoring agents, food signatures, and their metabolites). Apparently Christmas cookies make an appreciable spike in vanilla consumption as measured via Seattleites' urine.

I just love this. I absolutely think we have to monitor our water, soil, etc., for anything untoward, but we can detect many things that are dangerous far below the hazardous level. I don't think anyone can help but feel a little disconnected and uncomfortable when they read their city's water report and learn that it contains 1ppb arsenic this year, up from "undetectable" arsenic. "What does that mean? Where did it come from? Some arsenic must be worse than none, right? The legal limit is 10, hmm..." From Rick Keil's site:

The flux of 'home-baked cookie equivalents' during the holiday season of 2006 was about 250,000 cookies per day, roughly 2/3 butter or chocolate chip and 1/3 snickerdoodle or similar cinnamon-containing cookies such as gingerbread. If accurate, and taking into account our digestion, this means that the average person in Seattle was eating at least two cookies per day during the holidays. There was a spike in cookie equivalents after about December 13th. We wonder if this is because of the numerous office parties and holiday parties that occur the two weeks before the holiday.

You know you're a chemist when you wonder for a second why someone offsets "home-baked cookie equivalents" with quotes.

The nice thing about watching cinnamon and vanilla is that nobody gets hurt, nobody gets upset, and the trends for how much show up make some sense. Everyone knows about how many cookies they ate today.


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Cinnamaldehyde was a routine prep in undergrad organic labs. The proportion of pre-meds shot up and concomitant average intelligence plummeted. The idiots were tasting neat product. Aside from general stupidity, a teeny drop will erode a not teeny ulcer in the tongue that requires months to heal (re structure of nasty acrolein). Uncle Al would have made the synthesis mandatory. It was banned.

Is Aresnic "up" to 1 ppb, or was last year's detection limit 2ppb? As an unrelated aside, I met a British lab manager last year who had students test the heavy metals on their favorite bottled water brand when she was teaching. She used to like the fancy European springwaters, because one of them (I can't remember which one) had about 4 ppb uranium, which was twice the UK limit. Then the safe level was increased to 5 ppb by adopting EU standards, and the lab wasn't nearly as fun anymore.

This phenomenon of ever-falling detection limits is why I'm routinely underwhelmed by the dire-sounding reports that X% of product Y have detectable concentrations of nasty chemical Z (the case of Y = paper currency and Z = cocaine is popular, with X ranging from 30 to 90%). People don't realize that the phrase "detectable concentrations" implies--but doesn't state--an important piece of data.

What should the unit of home-baked cookie equivalents be called?

"What should the unit of home-baked cookie equivalents be called?"