Watch out pumpkin, there’s a new and perhaps more beneficial spice in town this holiday season: cinnamon. And, for good reason—this aromatic spice has been the go-to remedy for centuries, curing everything from indigestion to the common cold.
With over 250 species of cinnamon grown in tropical climates around Asia, Australia, and many of the islands in the Pacific Ocean, it’s safe to say that we won’t be running out of it anytime time soon.
Which begs the question: does it matter which variety you sprinkle into your daily morning cup of tea this winter?
Cassia cinnamon vs. Ceylon cinnamon
Let’s start off with a little Cinnamon 101. Produced from the bark of the Cinnamomum genus of evergreen trees, cinnamon has a wide range of uses, from everyday cooking with cinnamon powder (like these cinnamon-chili sweet potatoes) to its importance in both ayurvedic and Chinese medicinal remedies.
Only two species, however, are of importance commercially: cassia cinnamon and Ceylon cinnamon.
Cassia (Cinnamomum cassia), which was once only cultivated in Southern China, is now widely grown in subtropical regions of the country as well as in India, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Ceylon cinnamon, on the other hand, is a species of cinnamon native to Sri Lanka and is sometimes referred to as "true cinnamon” thanks to its scientific name, C. verum.
As a result, cassia is the variety you will find labeled as cinnamon powder or cinnamon sticks in the spice aisle of your local grocery store.
Two main differences between the two types of cinnamon
Some say they notice the subtle nuances in the flavor profiles of both varieties—the bark of Ceylon cinnamon is lighter and thinner, resulting in a milder flavor that is more suitable in desserts, while cassia is noticeably harder and darker, translating to a more pungent flavor that works better in savory dishes.
When powdered, however, the ability to tell the difference becomes significantly tougher. This is where the two main differences of cassia cinnamon and Ceylon cinnamon—cost and coumarin—come into play.
1.They don’t cost the same. Have a bottle of cinnamon powder in your pantry? Chances are high that it was made from cassia as a result of it being cheaper and easier to source. You have the Sri Lankan government to thank for this—in 2016, they introduced an import and re-export ban on Ceylon cinnamon, resulting in cassia alternatives flooding the U.S. market.
2.The levels of coumarin. Coumarin, a toxic organic chemical that causes liver damage to those sensitive to it, is what you need to watch for when buying cinnamon. A study conducted by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Berlin confirmed high levels of coumarin in 47 cinnamon powder samples from grocery stores in Germany, causing the European Union to set a limit on the amount of coumarin occurring in foods prepared for public consumption. Cassia—aka the one in your spice cabinet—is known to have high levels of coumarin (1 percent compared to around 0.004 percent in Ceylon cinnamon).
Health benefits of cinnamon
One of cinnamon’s three active compounds is cinnamaldehyde, which is the reason for cinnamon’s unique smell. It's also where the spice's superpowers lie—cinnamaldehyde is believed to help fight Alzheimer’s disease and has both anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties.
Scientific studies where cinnamon has been used to regulate blood pressure in prediabetic and diabetic patients, manage rheumatoid arthritis, and inhibit the process of arteriosclerosis of blood vessels have all resulted in favorable outcomes due to its anti-coagulant, anti-oxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties.
While we are only just starting to learn more about the powers of cinnamon, Eastern medicine has been using the spice for over a thousand years to cure indigestion, alleviate the symptoms of a cold, and even treat diarrhea. It's about time we caught up, don't you think?
Though the Ceylon variety is more expensive and harder to find, don't believe the hype: there is no such thing as fake cinnamon or real cinnamon. Both commercial species of cinnamon—Ceylon and cassia—come from the same genus of evergreen Cinnamomum tree. The main differences between the two really just boil down to the two C’s: cost and coumarin. And in small doses, it doesn't much matter which cinnamon you use—you are still reaping its many health benefits.
- eFloras.org: Cinnamomum
- Vedic Healing: Cinnamon: The Ancient Healing Spice
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Effect of Short-Term Administration of Cinnamon on Blood Pressure in Patients with Prediabetes and Type 2 Diabetes
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: The Prevalence and Predictors of Herbal Medicines Usage Among Adult Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients: A Case-Control Study
- MDPI: Spices and Atherosclerosis
- The Washington Post: You Can Spend a lot on ‘True’ Cinnamon, But Does it Taste Better Than the Rest?
- Lanka Business Online: Sri Lanka Bans Cinnamon Imports and Re-exports
- McGill University: Coumarin, the Illegal Chemical Causing Americans to Miss Out on a Sweet Treat
- Well+Good: This Essential Oil can Take on Superbugs (and it’s Probably Already in Your Pantry)