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:
I was shopping on the web and noticed that one seller says 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 "true" cinnamon.
While much of what is sold in the supermarket is cassia marketed as cinnamon, it is really not cinnamon.
I think stores should not only sell true cinnamon, but should be clear about what they are selling. :-)
Cinnamon and its many synonyms
Here’s what we found out about cinnamon in the course of researching this excellent question.
Cassia and all the other cinnamons are the same genus: Cinnamomum.
There are some 100 species of Cinnamonum, but three account for the vast majority of commercially available cinnamon:
- Ceylon (C. zeylanicum)
- Chinese (C. cassia)
- Indonesian (C. burmanii or C. cassia)
All three species—C. zeylanicum, C. cassia, and C. burmanii—feature similar fragrances and sweet, warm flavors.
Many "premium" brands of ground cinnamon use Indonesian Korintje cinnamon, which comes from the bark of wild C. burmanii trees, sustainably harvested on mountain slopes of the southwest coast of Sumatra.
Korintje is preferred by many cooks, because, like Ceylon cinnamon, it is smoother in flavor with less bite than the more common "Chinese” cinnamon (C. cassia).
However, many stick cinnamon products are 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 strong—the culinary dispute dates back to ancient Greece—with 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.
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.
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