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Cinnamon and its Synonyms: Which Kind is “True”?
8/6/2007
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A confusing welter of names hides the fact that all kinds of cinnamon are close cousins and are comparably tasty and “true”

by Craig Weatherby, Cheryll Kinsley, and Karen Long


We received a query about cinnamon recently, and it reflects common confusion about the nature of the spice. It caused us to dig deeply into the lore and science of cinnamon, with interesting results.


This is the communication that prompted our little cinnamon research project:


Hi,


I was shopping on your site and noticed that you sell cinnamon... but you state that cinnamon comes from the bark of the cassia tree.


I believe that cassia and cinnamon are two distinct spices, with cassia being considered inferior to cassia.  While much of what is sold in the supermarket is cassia marketed as cinnamon, it is really not cinnamon. I think with your claim to sell the best, you should not only sell true cinnamon, but should be clear about what you are selling. :-)


E.B.


Cinnamon and its many synonyms
When we sourced our ground and stick cinnamon, our primarily goal was to secure certified-organic cinnamons of the best culinary quality, with nomenclature taking a back seat.


Here’s what we found out about cinnamon in the course of researching an answer to this customer’s excellent question.


Cassia and all the other cinnamons are the same genus: Cinnamomum.


There are some 100 species of Cinnamonum, but three of them account for the vast majority of commercially available cinnamon:

  • Ceylon (C. zeylanicum)
  • Chinese (C. cassia)
  • Indonesian (C. burmanii or C. cassia)

All three speciesC. zeylanicum, C. cassia, and C. burmaniifeature similar fragrances and sweet, warm flavors.


Vital Choice ground cinnamon is Indonesian Korintje cinnamon, which comes from the bark of wild C. burmanii trees, sustainably harvested on mountain slopes of the southwest coast of Sumatra.


We chose Korintjethe species preferred by many cooksbecause, like Ceylon cinnamon, it is smoother in flavor with less bite than the more common “Chinese” cinnamon (C. cassia).


However, our Stick Cinnamon is Chinese C. cassia, because cassia cinnamon makes better, sturdier sticks.


Ceylon cinnamon (C. zeylanicum) is often referred to erroneously as “true” cinnamon, simply because it was the first kind introduced to the Western world.


Ceylon cinnamon is the kind most commonly sold in Europe, which seems to give a certain continental caché, but it holds no credible claim on culinary superiority among chefs who know cinnamon intimately.


Chinese and Indonesian cinnamons dominate the North American market, and are known generically, but somewhat inaccurately as “cassia”, because most of them come from the bark of the C. cassia tree.


Opinions in favor of one or the other species run deep and strongthe culinary dispute dates back to ancient Greecewith loyalists on both sides.


“Culinary cinnamon” has been recognized historically as coming from more than one species of Cinnamomum, and none is inherently inferior. Our ground cinnamon, made from C. burmannii, has been responsibly grown and harvested, and is a protected resource in Indonesia.


There seems to be little or no scientific evidence that one is better than the other, from a health standpoint.


Cinnamon’s substantial health benefits

Cinnamon helps moderate blood sugar, exerts strong antioxidant effects, reduces inflammation, discourages growth of disease bacteria and fungi, and boosts key brain functions.


Blood sugar control

According to the USDA researchers, “Cinnamon improves glucose and lipid profiles of people with type 2 diabetes” (Cao H et al 2007). In fact, no other food seems to approach the potent insulin-mimicking powers of cinnamon.


Cinnamon contains water-soluble antioxidants that may enhance insulin-mediated control of blood sugar. These include MHCP (methylhydroxychalcone polymer) and the catechin and epicatechin polyphenols found in tea and dark chocolate.


However, cinnamon can vary widely in its content of various phenols, and one recent trial found no blood sugar benefits from use of cinnamon supplements, so diabetics should not rely solely on the spice to help control blood sugar.


Compared with to C. zeylanicum, some sources say that C. cassia may contain more of the MHCP phenols credited with moderating blood sugar, but we have been unable to confirm this claim.


Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects

Cinnamon reduces the release of pro-inflammatory omega-6 arachidonic acid from cell membranes, making it an anti-inflammatory companion to the omega-3s from fish.


The cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon reduces activation of Nf-kappaB: a pro-inflammatory “nuclear transcription factor” linked to inflammatory diseases including cancer, atherosclerosis, diabetes, allergy, asthma, arthritis, Crohn's disease, and Alzheimer's disease.


When researchers put its antioxidant powers to the test, cinnamon beat out five other antioxidant spices (anise, ginger, licorice, nutmeg and vanilla) and the chemical food preservatives BHA, BHT and propyl gallate), being bested only by mint.


Heart health

Cinnamaldehyde also helps prevent unwanted clumping of blood platelets, by inhibiting the release of a pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid called arachidonic acid from platelet membranes and by reducing the formation of an inflammatory messenger molecule called thromboxane A2.


Cinnamon's essential oils also give it anti-microbial powers, and the spice is known for its ability to help stop the growth of bacteria, fungi, and Candida albicans yeast.


Cinnamon’s storied history

The ancient Egyptians prized cinnamon more highly than gold, and used it as a beverage flavoring, medicine, and embalming agent. Cinnamon was also mentioned in the Bible and in one a Chinese Materia Medica text written around 2,700 B.C.


Cinnamon was one of the most treasured spices in Medieval Europe and became one of the first commodities traded regularly between the Near East and Europe.



Sources

  • Anderson RA, Broadhurst CL, Polansky MM, Schmidt WF, Khan A, Flanagan VP, Schoene NW, Graves DJ. Isolation and characterization of polyphenol type-A polymers from cinnamon with insulin-like biological activity. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2003 Dec;62(3):139-48.
  • Broadhurst CL, Polansky MM, Anderson RA. Insulin-like biological activity of culinary and medicinal plant aqueous extracts in vitro. J Agric Food Chem 2000 Mar;48(3):849-52 2000.
  • Cao H, Polansky MM, Anderson RA. Cinnamon extract and polyphenols affect the expression of tristetraprolin, insulin receptor, and glucose transporter 4 in mouse 3T3-L1 adipocytes. Arch Biochem Biophys. 2007 Mar 15;459(2):214-22. Epub 2007 Jan 25.
  • Impari-Radosevich J, Deas S, Polansky MM et al. Regulatino of PTP-1 and insulin receptor kinase by fractions from cinnamon:implications for cinnamon regulation of insulin signaling. Horm Res 1998 Sep;50(3):177-82 1998.
  • Mang B, Wolters M, Schmitt B, Kelb K, Lichtinghagen R, Stichtenoth DO, Hahn A.  Effects of a cinnamon extract on plasma glucose, HbA, and serum lipids in diabetes mellitus type 2. Eur J Clin Invest. 2006 May;36(5):340-4.
  • Murcia MA, Egea I, Romojaro F, Parras P, Jimenez AM, Martinez-Tome M. Antioxidant evaluation in dessert spices compared with common food additives. Influence of irradiation procedure. J Agric Food Chem. 2004 Apr 7;52(7):1872-81. PMID:15053523.
  • Otsuka H, Fujioka S, Komiya T, et al. [Studies on anti-inflammatory agents. VI. Anti-inflammatory constituents of Cinnamomum sieboldii Meissn (author's transl)]. Yakugaku Zasshi 1982 Jan;102(2):162-72. PMID:12260.
  • Ouattara B, Simard RE, Holley RA, et al. Antibacterial activity of selected fatty acids and essential oils against six meat spoilage organisms. Int J Food Microbiol 1997 Jul 22;37(2-3):155-62. PMID:12270.
  • Qin B, Nagasaki M, Ren M, Bajotto G, Oshida Y, Sato Y. Cinnamon extract prevents the insulin resistance induced by a high-fructose diet. Horm Metab Res. 2004 Feb;36(2):119-25. PMID:15002064.
  • Quale JM, Landman D, Zaman MM, et al. In vitro activity of Cinnamomum zeylanicum against azole resistant and sensitive Candida species and a pilot study of cinnamon for oral candidiasis. Am J Chin Med 1996;24(2):103-9. PMID:12530.
  • Takenaga M, Hirai A, Terano T, et al. In vitro effect of cinnamic aldehyde, a main component of Cinnamomi Cortex, on human platelet aggregation and arachidonic acid metabolism. J Pharmacobiodyn 1987 May;10(5):201-8. PMID:12520.
  • Valero M, Salmeron MC. Antibacterial activity of 11 essential oils against Bacillus cereus in tyndallized carrot broth. Int J Food Microbiol. Aug 15;85(1-2):73-81 2003.
  • Vanschoonbeek K, Thomassen BJ, Senden JM, Wodzig WK, van Loon LJ. Cinnamon supplementation does not improve glycemic control in postmenopausal type 2 diabetes patients. J Nutr. 2006 Apr;136(4):977-80.

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