Cinnamon is a popular spice used in sweet and savory dishes across the globe. It has an interesting history and is known to have been exported to Egypt around the year 2000 B.C. It’s mentioned in the Old Testament where it was important in holy anointing oil and used to perfume linens and garments. At one time cinnamon was more expensive than gold and only available to the wealthy. Ancient civilizations prized the spice as a gift worthy of monarchs and even gods. The true location where cinnamon grew was kept secret for hundreds of years in order to protect the spice trading empires that were built upon it.
Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of several species of Cinnamomum trees. The outer bark of young branches is first scraped away with a sharp tool. The inner bark is hammered upon to loosen it from the branch and a long strip of the inner bark is removed whole while it is still wet. The bark is dried and within a few hours will naturally curl into yard-long quills. The quills are then cut into 2-4 inch lengths and sold as cinnamon sticks. The aromatic qualities of the quills or sticks will last indefinitely.
Four species of Cinnamomum are often sold as cinnamon, with each having a common name representing the location of its origin. C. verum is known as the true cinnamon and is native to Sri Lanka. It’s sometimes called Ceylon cinnamon. C. burmannii is the botanical name for Indonesian cinnamon. C. loureiroi is called Vietnamese or Saigon cinnamon, and C. aromaticum is Chinese cinnamon, also known as Cassia. All the Cinnamomum species are members of the Laurel family, Lauraceae.
The barks of each kind of tree are different, lending different properties to the cinnamon sticks. Ceylon cinnamon sticks are of a thinner bark with a lighter tan-brown color. These sticks can be ground in a spice mill or coffee grinder. Indonesian sticks have a reddish-brown color and are thicker and much harder. They’re so hard in fact that they can damage a spice grinder. Cassia, the Chinese cinnamon, and Saigon cinnamon have thick inner bark that doesn’t roll up into quills when dried. Both are available as broken pieces of thick bark.
Cinnamon is used to flavor both sweet and savory dishes. In the United States and Europe it is most often used in baked goods, while other cuisines of the world use it in savory meat dishes. Beverages, breads, rolls, cakes, cookies, biscuits, desserts, fruits dishes and pickles are some of the foods for which we use cinnamon. It’s an important flavoring in Mexican hot chocolate, eggnog and mulled wines.
Cinnamon contains a small amount of essential oils, about 0.5 to 1%. The main essential oil is called cinnamic aldehyde. It is used in food and drinks, perfumes and medicines.
Traditional medicines rely on cinnamon for its antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties. It’s been used to treat toothache, to fight bad breath, and as an aid in digestion. Cinnamon, the spice, is generally recognized as safe, but care must be taken when the essential oil is used. Cassia has a high concentration of coumarin, which can become toxic to the liver. In laboratory experiments cinnamic aldehyde has been shown to have anti-cancer effects on colorectal cells and melanoma. Constituents in cinnamon have also been reported to have pharmacological effects in treating Type II diabetes mellitus and insulin resistance.