Without question, Cinnabon is the producer of my wife’s favorite mall pastry — their classic roll — with Auntie Anne’s Pretzels sitting in a distant second place. Whenever we take a trip to the mall, I know I’m going to have to dissuade her from making a regrettable Cinnabon purchase. It’s not that she somehow wouldn’t enjoy everyone’s favorite cinnamon rolls; it’s the fact that the volume of sugar always disagrees with her system one way or another. However, for the sake of enjoying a giant cinnamon roll smothered in cream-cheese frosting, my wife is prepared to endure much discomfort.
So what are the ingredients behind the cinnamon-soaked magic that’s prompted so many diets to die tasty deaths in hundreds of shopping mall food courts?
Well, the official ingredient list for the standard Cinnabon hasn’t been disclosed, but we’re going to assume that the ingredient list from the supermarket version is similar. The one thing Cinnabon has disclosed is the macronutrient content of its classic roll, and its 880 calories and 1,150 milligrams of sodium will definitely disqualify it from inclusion on any responsible weight-loss plan.
With that said, let’s find out what else makes this ooey, gooey, frosty pastry tick.
1) Enriched Flour Bleached: Flour “enrichment” is essentially the Bizarro World practice of eliminating much of flour’s nutrients by eliminating the bran and the germ. This extends the flour’s shelf-life, but renders it substantially less nutritious. Don’t be too scared by the use of the “B” word; all flour is bleached. It naturally bleaches itself as it ages. In this case, however, “bleaching” refers to the process of accelerating the aging of the flour in order to give it a softer texture, which also depletes its vitamin E.
2) Water: Standard water, which is usually the primary nutritional mechanism used to mix food ingredients together.
3) Sugar: When sugar is third on the list of a food product’s ingredients behind flour and water, you’re probably dealing with a very sweet baked good. In this case, a standard Cinnabon contains 61 grams of total sugars, or 244 calories. In terms of the sugar consumption alone, this is right in the ballpark of a 20-ounce bottle of Dr. Pepper.
4) Palm and Soybean Oil: Partially hydrogenated oils like palm and soybean oil remain partially solid at room temperature. This makes them highly effective at binding food ingredients together and giving them a pasty texture.
5) Dextrose: Dextrose is a sugar derived from starches, like corn, and is chemically identical to glucose, or blood sugar. Because of this, dextrose is also used medically to treat low blood sugar and dehydration, and is theorized to help offset sugar imbalances in the intestines.
6) Margarine: The world’s most popular non-dairy spread and butter replacement. It’s composed of vegetable oil and water instead of the butterfat of milk. Nowadays, Americans consume more margarine, on average, than they do butter.
7) Beta Carotene: Beta carotene is the compound that provides carrots and sweet potatoes with their orange color, but that’s just a colorful side effect to the abundance of vitamin A lurking within these orange foods. In this case, you needn’t be concerned with any health benefits, because this beta carotene addition is purely ornamental, and for the sake of giving the cinnamon an attractive orange-ish tint.
8) Artificial Flavor: Less of a category and more of a government disclosure requirement, artificial flavors are “any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.”
In other words, they’re flavors that were cooked up in a lab somewhere.
9) Palmitate: An acid found in meat, cheese, butter and dairy products that’s extracted from its native sources and added to other foods in order to provide them with enjoyable textures and mouthfeel.
10) High Fructose Corn Syrup: Essentially a byproduct of the fact that corn is easily the most abundant crop grown in the U.S., high fructose corn syrup is a sweetener derived from corn. In essence, when you have more of a crop than you know what to do with it, and your continent is teeming with it, you come up with alternative uses for it, like making sweeteners and alternative fuels. Regardless as to its source, high fructose corn syrup is almost identical to sugar, especially where it counts — in the empty-calorie department.
11) Baking Powder: A common chemical leavening agent used in place of yeast, baking powder is a mixture of carbonate or bicarbonate, and a weak acid. Like yeast, it increases the volume and lightens the textures of baked goods.
12) Corn Syrup: This is essentially the same as the high-fructose variety, except that ordinary corn syrup is composed entirely of glucose while high fructose corn syrup has had some of its glucose transformed into fructose, which is a sweeter form of sugar.
13) Corn Syrup Solids: This is corn syrup that’s had 90 percent of its liquid content stripped away, leaving a solid sweetener behind similar to confectioners sugar. For our purposes, it’s just another addition to the sugar column.
14) Cinnamon: With all due respect to aspirin, cinnamon may be the most useful digestible product ever harvested from the bark of a tree. If nothing else, it certainly tastes a whole lot better, and without it, there’s no “Cinna” in the Cinnabon.
15) Mono and Diglycerides: Monoglycerides and diglycerides are in a class of emulsifiers, which are common additives to processed food. They’re added to food in situations where water and oil need to be forced to mix in spite of their natural aversion to one another.
16) Corn Starch: Remember what we said about coming up with an abundance of uses for crops that are in great abundance? Corn starch is another corn byproduct, commonly used to thicken foods, including cheese and yogurt, thereby making them larger than they would otherwise be.
17) Vital Wheat Gluten: In this case, the word “vital” doesn’t refer to the wheat being critical or essential. Instead, this refers to seitan, which is a frequent vegan meat substitute made from rinsing wheat dough and removing the starch. What’s left behind is a dense, sticky mass that can cause foods to become extra thick when baked.
18) Salt: A classic Cinnabon runs dead even with a 10-piece Chicken McNuggets as far as the sodium content is concerned, and will contribute approximately 50 percent of your recommended daily allotment of sodium all by itself. The saving grace of the McNuggets (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) is that the McNuggets contain a substantial amount of protein and only three-fifths as many calories as the Cinnabon.
19) Potassium Chloride: Talk about multifunctional! Potassium chloride can be used as a medicine to treat low potassium levels in the body, it can act as a salt substitute in food (as is the case here) and it can be used to stop the heart of someone who has been sentenced to die by lethal injection as drug number three in the three-drug lethal injection cocktail.
20) Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate: Yet another thickener designed to inflate the volume of food products.
21) Natural and Artificial Flavors: Natural flavors are quite literally flavors derived from their legitimate food sources . In this case it may be that Cinnabon is boosting the cinnamon flavoring of their cinnamon rolls by adding enhanced cinnamon flavorings that are distinct from the natural cinnamon.
22) Wheat Starch: Another food thickener, this time made of wheat.
23) Xanthan Gum: Xanthan gum is a relatively harmless thickening agent. That said, those with bowel issues should be wary when consuming it, as a study found it to be a highly efficient laxative.
24) Dried Molasses: A sweet, dark, sticky byproduct created by refining sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar. This is basically the residue left behind once the sugar crystals have been extracted. It’s another victory for the empty-calorie column, and a loss for the stability of your waistline.
25) Sodium Alginate: Another thickener, this time made from seaweed.
26) Polysorbate 60: Another emulsifier that’s intended to help water and oil mix in situations where they otherwise wouldn’t.
27) Sodium Citrate: Yep — another emulsifier! But… It also regulates acidity levels in food, and is able to prevent donated blood from clotting while it’s sitting in storage.
28) Locust Bean Gum: A natural gum (I wasn’t aware there was such a thing) extracted from the seeds of a Mediterranean tree, locust bean gum is yet another thickening agent. I’m starting to wonder why so many different thickeners are necessary.
29) Carrageenan: Popularly referred to as Irish Moss, it’s used in food preparation as yet another thickener. If you’re from the islands of the Caribbean (which I pretend to be), you may know Irish Moss as a thick, frothy drink. Personally, I thought its texture was far too much like mucus, but that’s probably what I get for drinking it out of a can after buying it from a Bahamian gas station. Aside from the fact that carrageenan has been under scrutiny for its suspected inflammatory properties, it’s also interesting that this is the second seaweed product on our list. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems like a surprising amount of seaweed for a cinnamon roll.
30) Propylene Glycol Alginate: Yet another thickener, and yet another inclusion in this cinnamon roll that’s found under the sea. Propylene glycol alginate is a byproduct of kelp, so that’s three different seaweeds in your cinnamon roll.
31) Yellow 5 and 6: These artificial food colorings are intended to make foods appear more appetizing, but they’ve actually been linked with other colorings in studies that have found them to increase hyperactivity in children. In some European nations, all foods containing these food colorings must carry a warning label to that effect.
32) Lactic Acid: This isn’t the form of lactic acid that you’re training your muscles to push through as you exercise. Instead, this lactic acid is created by fermentation, and is used as a food preservative.
33) Red 40: Another artificial food dye, although this one has fewer health concerns connected with it than either of the yellows.
34) Cream Cheese: This is the not-so-secret ingredient behind the Cinnabon frosting. Cream cheese is surprisingly simple to make, since it’s a fresh cheese made from milk and cream. You should be careful of how much of it you consume because it’s relatively high in saturated fat.
See everything above? That’s how you end up with more than 900 calories and 1,000 milligrams of sodium in a tightly wound, cinnamon-flavored package. I know there’s probably a way to compartmentalize this whole Cinnabon business in a way that makes it seem less detrimental. For example, you could say the equivalent effect on your body would be the same if you washed down six buttered dinner rolls with two cans of Coke in the span of 10 minutes. Hopefully, this should be when it occurs to you that you’d never do something like that under any circumstances.
So should you ever eat a Cinnabon? No. But things are rarely that simple. Should you eat a slice of double-layered chocolate cake with a side scoop of vanilla ice cream? Also no. Are you an unrepentant, joyless buzzkill if you don’t enjoy that same slice of cake at your nephew’s fifth birthday party? You bet.
Some foods are strictly for celebratory purposes, and if you limit your Cinnabon consumption to every now and again, then you’re using the Cinnabon the way it was intended. Decide which of your life’s events are worthy of celebrations that involve this sort of caloric bombshell, limit your consumption of it to those events and walk away guilt free.
Spoiler Alert: You’re truly enjoying a blessed existence if even eight events per year would qualify for this level of gluttony, and the one-week anniversary of your last trip to the mall food court does not count as an occasion worth celebrating.