Ah, cinnamon. Whether it’s in our pastry or beverage, we absolutely love it. It is so popular that one probably has to live in another dimension to ever go without tasting it, much more hearing of it. So you definitely know that cinnamon smells good, and tastes even better.
But did you know that the spice you often smell and taste on the pie you’re eating or the tea you’re drinking has an interesting history? Read on.
Mystery of the Cinnamon Fish/Bird
Even the ancient peoples of the world loved cinnamon. Some even revered it. It was a gift fit for monarchs and for gods. Understandably, some enterprising spice traders kept the source of cinnamon a secret. We now know of course, that cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the island nation south of the Indian sub-continent.
But at the time of the ancients, spice traders were mum about where they were getting the special spice from. So protective were they of cinnamon that they were not above spinning a fantastic tale or two about where they actually got it. And people believed them. French medieval chronicler Jean de Joinville accepted a story that he was told that cinnamon came from the edge of the Earth, fished up from the sources of the Nile.
The wise historian Herodotus on the other hand believed that giant “Arabian Cinnamon Birds” made nests from sticks of cinnamon that they obtained from an unknown land. But eventually the truth got out about where cinnamon came from, and from then on the island of Sri Lanka became a favorite destination of the seafaring empires of the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British.
Of course now we see cinnamon at almost any grocery store and spice shop, and most probably have the luxury of getting it on the cheap; unlike the people from the ancient times that must have paid through the nose for it. So if we wanted to put it on our food and drink, we can. And if we wanted to use it for medicinal purposes, well, yes we can!
In North America, folk names include Real Cinnamon, True Cinnamon, Mexican Cinnamon, Dutch Cinnamon and Sweet Cinnamon.
Here are some health benefits of true cinnamon – Cinnamomum verum (or the old botanical name Cinnammomum zeylanicum)aka Ceylon cinnamon.
- It aids in the digestive process, improving appetite. Cinnamon also relieves flatulent colic, nausea, and dyspepsia.
- Provides relief from congestion due to common colds.
- Contains anti-inflammatory compounds that relieve muscle and joint pains, and arthritis.
- Cinnamon also has antimicrobial properties that enable it to prevent urinary tract infections, tooth decay, and gum disease.
- It is a powerful antioxidant. An antioxidant is a molecule that prevents the oxidation of other molecules. If those terms remind you of a horrible time in biology class, suffice to say that antioxidants are good for the body as they maintain health and prevent diseases. And cinnamon has a lot of antioxidants. 267,536 ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) values per 100g. to be exact. A quick backgrounder: ORAC is a way of measuring the antioxidant capabilities of substances. In theory, the higher the ORAC value is, the better.
- May reduce cholesterol. In some controlled scientific tests, LDL levels were significantly reduced, HDL was unchanged and triglycerides were reduced 25 to 30% (doses ranged from 1g to 6 g daily with rather equal results…showing that more is not necessarily better. Other studies were inconclusive. All studies I have found were involving Type 2 diabetics. Results of those studies cannot be applied to non-diabetics, in which case it ‘may’ reduce cholesterol (in non-diabetics).
- Cinnamon effectively reduces blood sugar, thus aiding in managing type-2 diabetes in conjunction with medications (and in some cases along with other natural methods can replace pharma medicines). Because it mimics insulin’s function, it lowers blood sugar levels. Laboratory tests on 49 medicinal plants showed that Cinammomun zeylanicum was far more effective in fulfilling insulin’s role. Some type-2 diabetics and ‘pre-diabetics’ can be helped without pharma drugs.
Here’s what some researchers say:
The beneficial effects of CZ (Cinnammomum zeylanicum) In-vivo includes; a) attenuation of weight loss associated with diabetes, b) reduction of Fasting Blood Glucose, c) reducing LDL and increasing HDL cholesterol, d) reducing HbA1c and e) increasing circulating insulin levels . In addition CZ also showed beneficial effects against diabetic neuropathy and nephropathy 
The Odd Cousin
Cassia (Cinnamomum cassia, aka Chinese cinnamon) ) a close relative of Cinnammomum zeylanicum, is sometimes interchanged with and sold as the “true cinnamon”, but this is deceptive. Cassia also comes from different but related plants such as Cinnamomum aromaticum, Cinnamomum loureiroi and Cinnamomum burmannii.
It is important to know that they are different plants with different properties because cassia contains coumarin which has some pretty nasty side-effects when taken in large amounts. Among them are allergic reactions, liver and kidney damage. Coumarin is a strong anti-coagulant (blood thinner).
Over-consumption of cassia is especially hazardous to children, due to their smaller anatomy; an acceptable amount for an adult will not be for a child or small adult. European authorities have warned against it. In Germany, for example, parents are warned not to allow their children to eat too much of a Christmas treat called “Zimtsterne” or cinnamon stars because of the fear that they might have been made with cassia and not cinnamon.
Because coumarin is oil soluble, it becomes bioavailable because of the butter or oil content necessary in baking. Using cassia sticks in your tea, for example is not a problem as the troublesome constituent, coumarin is insoluble in water.
Though coumarin has its place in herbal medicine (ie. treating lymphedema), it is moderately toxic, has significant blood thinning phytochemicals and is best left up to your natural health practioner.
The recommended maximum amount of cassia per day for an adult is less than 1 tsp. One full teaspoon is above the tolerable levels as set by the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) .
To quote from Wikipedia:
The name cinnamon is correctly used to refer to Ceylon cinnamon, also known as “true cinnamon” (from the botanical name C. zeylanicum). However, the related species, cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticum), Saigon Cinnamon (Cinnamomum loureiroi), and Cinnamomum burmannii are sometimes sold labeled as cinnamon, sometimes distinguished from true cinnamon as “Chinese cinnamon”, “Vietnamese cinnamon”, or “Indonesian cinnamon”; many websites, for example, describe their “cinnamon” as being cassia. Ceylon cinnamon, using only the thin inner bark, has a finer, less dense, and more crumbly texture, and is considered to be less strong than cassia. Cassia has a much stronger (somewhat harsher) flavour than cinnamon, is generally a medium to light reddish brown, hard and woody in texture, and thicker (2–3 mm thick), as all of the layers of bark are used.
As you can see above, they all start with Cinnamomum, and are the minor cins as I jokingly refer to.
To quickly identify what you’re buying, here are some of cassia’s distinguishing features:
- It has a harsh, stronger (though not better) flavor.
- Rolls appear woody in texture. The edges of the roll turn inward to each other.
- It is harder and thicker than Cinnamon. No layers of bark.
- Unlike cinnamon, which is light or golden brown, cassia is a darker, medium reddish-brown.
However, if you’re getting your cinnamon in powdered form, read the labels and don’t trust the generic, supermarket brand names because they very likely are mixing cassia with the cinnamon or it IS cassia. In fact, in the US, true cinnamon is very difficult to locate except in health food or gourmet shops and must be labeled with the botanical name.
This may not be much of a problem for culinary purposes, but for ingestion in higher doses for health purposes – then yes. You must be careful that it is indeed true cinnamon you are using. Cassia contains .5% of coumarin. True Ceylon cinnamon contains only .0004%.
Consumers who think they are purchasing cinnamon from supermarkets are most likely buying cassia because manufacturers do not have to identify it on the labels. Purchase from your health foods store or online from a reliable source and be sure it is labeled by its botanical name Cinnamomum zeylanicum (the Major Cin ;>) .
Only then can you be sure you are getting the real deal – sweet, not harsh, healthy, heavenly, true organic Ceylon or Sri Lanka cinnamon.
Here is a great link showing the difference between cassia and cinnamon (not affiliated):