By Maryann Readal
Cinnamon is the name for several plant species in the laurel family (Lauraceae). It is a small tropical evergreen tree with aromatic leaves and bark. The spice, cinnamon, is the bark of the tree which has been shaved, rolled, and dried into the familiar tubes called “quills.”
The two most common cinnamon species are “true” or Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) and cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum aromaticum). “True” cinnamon is grown in Sri Lanka. Cassia cinnamon is grown in Southeast Asia and is the one found in the spice section of your grocery store. The two cinnamons differ in taste and color, with the “true” cinnamon having a more subtle, delicate flavor and a lighter color. It is also more expensive. The picture is a good illustration of the difference between the two cinnamons. The cinnamon on the left is the coarser cassia cinnamon. The cinnamon on the right is Ceylon cinnamon. Notice how the quills of the Ceylon cinnamon are tightly rolled.
Cassia cinnamon has a higher content of the natural ingredient coumarin. Scientists discovered that coumarin may cause reversible liver damage in susceptible people. This discovery led the European Union in 2011 to limit the amount of coumarin in food to 6.8mg per pound of food (about one teaspoon). This created a furor in Scandinavian countries where the cinnamon bun, which has a high cinnamon content, is a traditional baked good, and cinnamon stars are a popular cookie. Sweden found a way around this restriction by claiming that the cinnamon bun was a traditional food, and therefore, was subject to the higher coumarin limit of 22.7mg per pound of food. The Danish baking industry argued that switching to the “true” or Ceylon cinnamon, with its lower coumarin content, would ruin the taste of their traditional food and make it much more expensive as well. As you may imagine, this issue was very important in a country which celebrates National Cinnamon Bun Day on October 4th, and which looks forward to its daily fika tradition of having coffee along with their famous cinnamon bun.
Cinnamon was first traded by the Arabs who protected their source of the spice by telling fantastic tales of how wild birds guarded the cinnamon trees. References to cinnamon were found in ancient Chinese botanical medical texts dating back to 2800 BCE. Cinnamon has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. The Egyptians used cinnamon in the embalming process, as a medicine, and as a flavoring for beverages. There are a number of references to cinnamon in the Bible as an ingredient in Moses’ anointing oils (Exodus) and as a token of friendship between lovers and friends (Proverbs), while the Romans burned cinnamon on their funeral pyres. In 65 CE, Nero burned a year’s supply of cinnamon during his second wife’s funeral ─ a wife who he had assassinated.
In medieval Europe, cinnamon was an indicator of wealth. It was burned as incense, as well as used to preserve meat. During the Bubonic Plague, sponges were soaked with cinnamon and cloves and placed in the sick room. It was also used to cure coughs and indigestion.
Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the demand for cinnamon grew at the same time as traditional trade routes were threatened by unrest in the Arab world. Portuguese sailors began to look for alternate sources of spices, leading to Chrisopher Columbus’s landing in the Americas, as well as the discovery of the source of cinnamon – Ceylon. By the time the British East India Company gained control of the spice trade in the 19th century, demand for cinnamon had waned and was replaced by coffee, tea, sugar, and chocolate.
So where are we today with cinnamon, besides it being a necessary ingredient in our cinnamon buns, cinnamon candies, and apple pie? Several clinical studies have shown that cinnamon does help control fasting blood glucose levels in Type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetic individuals. It has also been found to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. However, the National Institute of Health feels not enough study has been done to make a definitive recommendation for using cinnamon as a treatment. They do recommend that, if using cinnamon as a food supplement or medicine, the lower coumarin Ceylon cinnamon should be used.
Here is hoping you will enjoy many ─ but not too many ─ cinnamony treats this holiday season.
Photo Credits: 1) Quills of cassia cinnamon (left) and Ceylon cinnamon (right) (Creative Commons); 2) Cinnamon bun (Maryann Readal); 3) Cinnamon tree (Creative Commons, Magda Wojtyra).
Aubrey, Allison. Cinnamon can help lower blood sugar, but one variety may be best. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/12/30/255778250/cinnamon-can-help-lower-blood-sugar-but-one-variety-may-be-best. Accessed 11/18/20.
Bundesinstitut fur Risikobewerlung (BfR). FAQ on coumarin in cinnamon and other foods. https://www.bfr.bund.de/en/faq_on_coumarin_in_cinnamon_and_other_foods-8487.html. Accessed 11/18/20
National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health. Ciinnamon. May 2020. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/cinnamon. Accessed 11/20/2020.
Osborne, Troy David. A taste of paradise: cinnamon. https://www.lib.umn.edu/bell/tradeproducts/cinnamon. Accessed 11/11/20.
Ting Lu. Cinnamon extract improves fasting blood glucose and glycosylated hemoglobin level in Chinese patients with type 2 diabetes. Nutrition Research. June 2012. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22749176/ Accessed 11/17/20.
The Guardian. Cinnamon sparks spicy debate between Danish bakers and food authorities. December 20, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/20/cinnamon-intake-food-argument-denmark Accessed 11/11/20.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.