Cinnamon: The Truth About This Spice

I loved the rolled sticks of cinnamon my sister brought with her from the US whenever she visited us. That was when I lived in the city of Bombay, (now Mumbai) in India. Chalk it to the folly of youth but little did I know that the cinnamon she came bearing as a gift was actually inferior to the cinnamon my mother purchased locally and paid a lot of money for! I loved the look of those beautifully rolled sticks that contrasted with the long thin strips that my mother called dalchini or cinnamon.

True CinnamonTrue 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.

CassiaCassia 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. MalabathrumIt 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.

As a Spice in Cooking

Cinnamon is probably one of the oldest known spices. In the United States, it is used mainly in desserts and pies, to flavor cereals – which kid doesn’t like Cinnamon Toast Crunch?! – and in warm drinks like hot chocolate or mulled wine. Whole cinnamon as well as ground cinnamon are used in Indian as well as Middle Eastern foods.

Cinnamon sticks in boiling water are a great environment-friendly alternative to perfumed candles and oils.

Storing the Spice

Like all other whole spices, cinnamon will retain its flavor longer when stored whole and in an air-tight container. Once it is powdered, essential oils are released and the deterioration starts immediately. By deterioration, I mean loss of flavor since it has a lot of volatile oils. Cinnamon powder is best stored in air-tight containers and, will last longer if stored in the refrigerator. There is no need to refrigerate cinnamon sticks.

Most of the cinnamon we consume in the USA is Cassia, especially in the powdered form. And, quite frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that as it works very well in desserts, mulled wine and hot chocolate. But as always, when a quality product is substituted with a cheaper variety, there are warnings that go hand in hand.

Health Risks

Cassia contains a compound called coumarin, that can be toxic if consumed in high quantities. Coumarin has been banned in the US since the 1950s as an additive to foods. Even relatively small amounts of coumarin can damage the liver and kidneys of particularly sensitive individuals but the good news is that this is not permanent damage. True cinnamon contains low levels of coumarin (0.45%) which are considered to be safe whereas cassia cinnamon contains high levels (upto 5%) of coumarin. It is therefore not a good idea to eat large amounts of cinnamon. I know what you are thinking! Who chomps away on cinnamon?! And how much is “a large amount”? According to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Germany, 2 milligrams of coumarin per kilogram of food is considered a safe amount to consume. Additionally, the cinnamaldehyde in Cassia has a moderate tendency to cause allergic reactions, especially in the bladder.

What does one do? Unless you are eating a lot of Cassia, in excess of 0.5g per kg of food, and on a regular basis, I would not be alarmed. I have a wonderful rule of everything in moderation, nothing in excess and it should work in this case, too.

The other thing one could do is to flavor your food with better quality cinnamon, true cinnamon. Look closely at the labeling on powdered cinnamon and try to buy powders made from true cinnamon or at least a blend of true cinnamon and Cassia.

True cinnamon can be purchased online from

Or find a local spice shop or an ethnic shop as they are more likely to stock true cinnamon.

Health Gains

Cinnamon is known to contain manganese, iron and calcium and a host of volatile oils. In medicine, it was once used to treat colds, diarrhea and other problems of the digestive system. Its healing abilities come from components of its essential oils that can be harmful when consumed in large quantities: cinnamaldehyde, cinnamyl acetate, and cinnamyl alcohol. Cinnamaldehyde has as an anti-clotting action and it also anti-inflammatory.

It was discovered as recently as the year 2003 that cinnamon’s essential oils qualify it as an anti-microbial food and has been used successfully to stop the growth of bacteria as well as fungi, including the commonly problematic Candida that causes yeast infections. While this may not make waves in the medical world, it is possible that cinnamon could be used as a safer option for preserving food.

And sniffing cinnamon might be good for your mental health! It is said to boost brain activity! Mmmm!

Interesting Links and Resources about Cinnamon

The Making of Cassia (A slideshow on Flickr)
Pictures of cinnamomum verum or cinnamomum zylanicum
Comparing Cinnamon
Cinnamon (Wikipedia)

So where’s the recipe, you might ask? It’s coming up very soon! Look forward to a wonderful heart-warming recipe for cinnamon rolls.

About the Author: Manisha is an Internet Strategist who believes in the benefits of slowing down, which is, in essence, anti-thesis to the world of instant gratification that we currently live in. Her food blog, Indian Food Rocks, is about her personal journey through life, spiced by Indian food and anecdotes.
Images used in this article are from the following sources and are copyright of their owners: true cinnamon from The Spice House, cassia from Manisha and malabathrum from Anita of A Mad Tea Party
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June 2007

5 Responses to “Cinnamon: The Truth About This Spice”

Connie Says: June 2nd, 2007at 10:11 pm

When you told me you were going to write about Cinnamon you weren’t kidding were you. 😀

Though I think you alluded to this one of my favorite ways to use Cinnamon is to mix it with sugar. I like it spread on buttered toast.

Mish Says: February 7th, 2008at 12:32 am

I’m not going to panic, I’ll continue to chew on cinnamon sticks occasionally.
Turmeric has coumarin too, I believe.
Coumarin is a blood thinner and a liver problem from eating too much usually reverses itself after a bit. Using a little bit of powder everyday to spice up some hot/cold cereal isn’t going to kill anyone.

If you want cinnamon without the coumarin (cassia), they say to just steep the stick in hot water or use a filter for the powder form. They’re great in tea.
I suppose the coumarin is locked into the cinnamon, it must be digested in solid or powder form because it is not water-soluble.

bacrow Says: February 10th, 2010at 11:43 pm

Turmeric does not contain Coumarin. It contains Curcumin which sounds similar but is entirely different. It’s very beneficial to eat a lot of Curcumin or Tumeric because they are very good for you.
It’s also interesting to note that Celery, Chamomile, Sweet Clover and Parsley have some Coumarin in them too.
I’ve read that Coummarin is fat soluble. So you can make tea as stated above and get the water soluble benefits from Cassia. Just throw the residue away.

Connie Says: February 11th, 2010at 10:46 am

Thank you for pointing out the error.

Patrick Jordan Says: January 5th, 2013at 7:53 pm

Dear Manisha

I have been at the Food Game for decades and I have never seen a more perfect dissertation on a given topic in all of that time. I am writing a book that is 450 pages long (so far) on the paradox and cognitive dissonance that comes with reporting on what is promoted as food along with the supposed benefits and risks of said ingested material. No one agrees with anyone else on any given topic.

However, your single article answers the entire scope of the disinformation surrounding ‘cinnamon’ and exquisitely provides a sampling of vendors who can provide the source of what I now consider to be ‘true’ cinnamon. This is an added note of praise because I would not like to have spent the next few decades trying to find sources of the real thing.

Thank you for one of the best pieces of information on the internet.

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