In the Bible, cinnamon is mentioned several times and is referred to as an ancient spice. Cinnamon was among the Queen of Sheba’s gifts to King Solomon, and Emperor Nero was chastised for burning a year's supply in his wife's funeral pyre. Cinnamon is the second most used spice in North American kitchens, next to pepper and is prized for its warm, woody flavor with a hint of clove and citrus. It is most commonly used for sweet desserts but in the Far East and the Middle East it is used to flavor meats.
True cinnamon is the inner bark of an evergreen tree, (Cinnamomum verum or cinnamomum zeylancium) grown mainly in Sri Lanka (previously Ceylon) and Southern India. Since it is expensive, it has been replaced to a large extent by the bark of a related species called Cassia (Cinnamon aromaticum). Pardon the expression, but Cassia is also referred to as bastard cinnamon. (This is not related to the laxative sold in stores as Cassia or Senna.) Both kinds of cinnamon, however, get their flavor from a chemical called cinnamaldehyde.
Cassia sticks or quills are a light reddish brown in color, and hard and woody in texture as they are made from the entire bark of the tree. True cinnamon is made from the inner bark, lending itself to a finer and less dense texture. It is often said that the quills of the true cinnamon spice roll only towards one side whereas the cassia sticks roll inward from both sides. The tightly-rolled quills of true cinnamon are very delicate and feel rather like parchment paper, which you can break apart easily; whereas Cassia sticks are hollow. If you have ever had to pound your cinnamon sticks to break them, then you definitely have Cassia! True cinnamon also trumps cassia when it comes to flavor. It is sweeter and more refined.
There is a another variant of cinnamon called Malabathrum that is commonly used in the Indian sub-continent. It is from a related species called Cinnamomum tamala or Cinnamomum tejpata.
How much coumarin does cinnamon contain?
A rough distinction can be made between two types of cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon only contains low levels of coumarin which are safe from the Institute’s risk assessment perspective. By contrast, cassia cinnamon contains high levels of coumarin and large amounts of this cinnamon should not, therefore, be eaten.
How can consumers distinguish between Ceylon cinnamon and cassia cinnamon?
It is almost impossible for consumers to distinguish between Ceylon cinnamon and cassia cinnamon in cinnamon powder. The situation is different in the case of cinnamon sticks. Whereas in the case of cassia cinnamon a relatively thick layer of the bark has been rolled into a stick, the cross-section of a Ceylon cinnamon stick looks more like a cigarette - several thin layers of bark have been rolled up into a cinnamon stick resulting in a comparatively compact cross-section. The origin of the cinnamon is not normally declared on the packaging; sometimes false information has been supplied in the past.
Risks and Precautions
- Some people who are sensitive to cinnamon may be at an increased risk of liver damage after consuming cinnamon-flavored foods, drinks and food supplements.
- This is likely due to the fact that cinnamon contains coumarin, which has been linked to liver damage. Ceylan cinnamon contains less coumarin than Cassia cinnamon.