Cinnamon is NOT Created Equal!

Most of us like cinnamon; it's been used in cooking, baking, and medicine for thousands of years. It comes from the fragrant inner bark of a group of small evergreen trees called Cinnamomum. There are two major types of cinnamon used in food preparation-Ceylon cinnamon and Cassia cinnamon-and they are NOT created equal.

Ceylon cinnamon, native to Sri Lanka, is also known as "true cinnamon." This is NOT the predominant spice typically sold as cinnamon in the United States. What is commonly found at your grocer is a closely related and less expensive variety called Cassia cinnamon.

Cassia is native to Burma and also grown in China and Vietnam. Cassia is slightly darker in color compared to Ceylon, and has a stronger, more pungent flavor. While both Cassia and Ceylon come from the same source (Cinnamomum), Ceylon cinnamon is considered a finer quality spice due to its sweeter, more delicate and complex flavor.

In addition to stark flavor differences, another distinction between Ceylon and Cassia is the coumarin content of Cassia. Cassia cinnamon is the main source of coumarin in the human diet. Coumarin is a naturally occurring toxin which has the potential to damage the liver with chronic use. Cassia contains high levels of coumarin, whereas Ceylon contains either undetectable levels or only slight traces of coumarin.

Recent studies reveal that regularly consuming Cassia cinnamon powder (sprinkling it on oatmeal and toast, baking with it, mixing it into cocoas and eggnogs, garnishing applesauce with it, are just a few examples) is harmful. The coumarin levels add up quickly and place heavy stress on the liver. In fact, due to the presence of Coumarin in Cassia cinnamon, European health agencies are leading the way in warning against consuming Cassia in any way, shape, or form.

The proof is positive when it comes to food preparation: Ceylon cinnamon is the clear choice for quality, flavor, and health. And speaking of health, get this: "True cinnamon" (Ceylon) is antimicrobial and restrains the growth of fungi and yeast, making it potentially useful in the treatment of allergies. This cinnamon also stimulates insulin activity thereby helping the body to process sugar more efficiently-good news for those dealing with insulin resistance. AND it helps you feel alert by increasing blood flow to the brain (consider adding Ceylon cinnamon to your morning beverage). So there we have it: If the right cinnamon is used, then that cinnamon roll not only tastes good, but it's good for you, too!

So how do you tell the difference? The real Ceylon cinnamon sticks are a tan color, very soft, and you can see loose and rough layers of bristles-they remind me of a rolled cigar. And Ceylon cinnamon tastes sweet and delicate.

Cassia sticks are reddish brown in color, have a single CURL that closes inward, and they're HARD. While you can easily grind the Ceylon cinnamon sticks in an electric grinder, you'd likely burn the grinder if tried on Cassia. Finally, you can easily chew the Ceylon cinnamon sticks, but the Cassia sticks would be a pain in the jaw. And Cassia cinnamon tastes strong and peppery.

After learning all this cinnamon research, I went straight to my pantry and storage to see just what cinnamon I'm using. Sure enough, there's some Cassia sharing shelf space with Ceylon. Dang it. Maybe this will be the case for you, too. If so, let's not despair or throw the Cassia out. Let's do quit cooking and baking with it though. Going forward? 1) Let's use it as room freshener by boiling it on the stove with cloves and orange peel, and 2) read labels and be sure we're buying the best-Ceylon!


    Alice Osborne
    Weekly Newsletter Contributor since 2006
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