Why Your Cinnamon Probably Isn’t Really Cinnamon

Sticky Fingers Cinnamon Raisin Scone MixIt’s a cinnamony time of year! Along with everything pumpkin that is popping up all over the place comes the flavor of cinnamon. Cinnamon is what makes most pumpkiny things have that flavor we have learned to associate with pumpkin (which is actually rather bland tasting). Of course, nutmeg and other spices play a part here, too, but cinnamon is the key. It can make or break anything in which it’s added, being too strong (and spicy) or too light and barely noticeable. I experience this with teas flavored with cinnamon. Most are far too strong.

But is it real cinnamon in that tea, pie, etc., or the pretender? Most likely it’s the latter, and here’s why:

The Basics

True Cinnamon vs Cinnamon CassiaJust as there are various kinds and sources of vanilla, pepper, and other flavorings and spices, so there are different cinnamons — actually, two main ones:

  • Ceylon Cinnamon – the real deal
  • Cassia Cinnamon – the pretender

Both come in two basic forms:

  • sticks (also called “quills”)
  • powdered

The sticks of both are dried in the sun and thus end up curling, the shape many of us are used to. But as you can see, they are also rather different. True cinnamon (left) is more delicate and layered with a finer flavor. Cassia is tougher and harder, with a harsher flavor. See more details below.

How We Got Different “Cinnamons”

Eons ago, cinnamon was broken into four types of cinnamon, causing some confusion:

  • Cinnamomum Zeylanicum — Called “True cinnamon” or Cinnamomum verum which is an alternate Latin name for the plant. Grown in Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon).
  • Cinnamomum Iners — Called Cassia, meaning literally ‘the peel of the plant’ (bark) which is scraped off the tree. Grown in Arabia and Ethiopia.
  • Cinnamomum Tamala — Called “Malabathrum” or “Malobathrum” (from the Sanskrit word tamālapattram, meaning literally “dark-tree leaves”). There are several other species in this group, all grown in northern India.
  • Cinnamomum Cassia — Called “Serichatum” and grown in China.

Some product descriptions still list things like “made with four types of cinnamon,” but basically, the two named at the beginning of this article are the ones most commonly available. Here are more details on each:

Ceylon (True) Cinnamon

Cinnamon VisualPhotos_comAIn a nutshell: Comes from the species Cinnamomum Zeylanicum (a laurel tree whose first name is a variation of the Greek word kinnámmon and second name is the Latin version of “Ceylon”). Light brown color, thin and soft, sticks filled and fibrous inside, delicate aroma, sweet taste, and .004% coumarin (a naturally occurring substance with strong blood-thinning properties) content. Grown in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Ceylon cinnamon (also called “true cinnamon”) is more expensive than Cassia, which explains why it is rarer and usually only sold in specialty stores. The fine, less dense, and more crumbly texture is because only the thin inner bark is used here. These softer quills can be easily ground in a coffee grinder, so you might want to buy it in this form. This “true” type of cinnamon is supposed to have a number of health benefits, especially for controlling diabetes and cholesterol but also to help with weight loss.

Cassia (Pretender) Cinnamon

In a nutshell: Comes from the species Cinnamomum Cassia. Dark reddish-brown color, thick and hard, hollow sticks, harsh aroma, flat/stronger taste, and 5% coumarin content (which can be a problem since it thins the blood and can build up in your system over time). Grown in China, Vietnam, and Indonesia (Cinnamomum burmannii called “Korintje cinnamon”).

Cassia cinnamon is more common, less expensive, and what you usually are buying when you shop in supermarkets in North America. This variety comes from small trees grown in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Brazil, Vietnam, and Egypt. They are often labeled as “cinnamon” but sometimes distinguished from true cinnamon by being labeled as “Chinese cinnamon,” “Vietnamese cinnamon,” or “Indonesian cinnamon.” Cassia has a much stronger flavor than Ceylon cinnamon, is generally reddish-brown in color, and rather woody in texture since all of the layers of bark are used.

Cinnamon as Valuable Commodity

Transporting things like cinnamon over long distances tended to make them rare and valuable commodities — gifts fit for royalty and potentates. Cinnamon was imported to Egypt from China as early as 2000 B.C.E. Later, it was commonly used on funeral pyres in Rome (one legend is that in 65 C.E., Emperor Nero burned a year’s supply of cinnamon at his wife’s funeral).

Uses for Cinnamon

Mexican Spiced Hot CocoaCinnamon as a flavor enhancer varies from country to country. Middle Eastern countries often use it for flavoring meats (lamb, poultry, etc.) whereas a lot of Western cooks use it in sweet things, especially baked goods like apple pies, cinnamon rolls, and hot cinnamon candies. These days a big use is in flavored teas, especially those known as “chais” (meaning teas that are spiced, often with a heavy dose of cinnamon).

[Note: some of this information originally appeared in one of my articles on another blog.]

© 2015 A.C. Cargill photos and text

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