Cinnamon foliage and flowers
Cinnamon is the aromatic, inner bark of certain bushy, tropical, evergreen shrubs or small trees of the Cinnamomum genus of the laurel family (Lauraceae), especially C. verum, C. aromaticum, and C. loureirii, that is dried, ground, and used as a spice. The term is also used for the culinary name of the spice and for the plants yielding this bark, and in particular for C. verum (or C. zeylanicum), which is known as "true cinnamon" or Ceylon cinnamon.
Most of the spice sold as cinnamon in the United States and Canada (where true cinnamon is still generally unknown) is actually cassia from C. aromaticum (or C. cassia). In some cases, cassia is labeled Chinese cinnamon to distinguish it from the more expensive true cinnamon, which is the preferred form of the spice used in Europe and Mexico.
Cinnamon, which has played a very important historical role, tracing to ancient empires and trade between nations, is principally used to provide flavor to food. Human creativity has taken this spice and used it in a wide variety of prepared dishes, including desserts, chocolate, spicy candies, tea, hot cocoa, liqueurs, savory dishes of chicken and lamb, and for flavoring cereals and fruits. Cinnamon bark is one of the few spices which can be consumed directly.
The name cinnamon comes from Greek kinnámōmon, from Phoenician and akin to Hebrew qinnâmôn, itself ultimately from a Malaysian language (cf. Malay and Indonesian kayu manis, which means sweet wood).
Cinnamomum is a genus of evergreen trees and shrubs belonging to the Laurel family, Lauraceae. The species of Cinnamomum have aromatic oils in their leaves and bark. The genus contains over 300 species, distributed in tropical and subtropical regions of North America, Central America, South America, Asia, Oceania, and Australasia.
Notable Cinnamomum species include cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum or C. zeylanicum, also known as "true cinnamon" or Ceylon cinnamon), cassia (C. aromaticum or C. cassia), camphor laurel (C. camphora), Saigon cinnamon (C. loureiroi, also known as Vietnamese cinnamon, Vietnamese cassia, or Saigon cassia), Malabathrum (C. tamala, also known as C. tejpata; tejpat or tej pat in Hindi; or, inaccurately, "Indian bay leaf").
True cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum
Popularly labelled simply as cinnamon or as Ceylon cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum (synonym C. zeylanicum) is a small evergreen tree 10-15 meters (32.8-49.2 feet) tall, which is native to Sri Lanka and Southern India. The bark is widely used as a spice.
The leaves are ovate-oblong in shape, 7-18 centimeters (2.75-7.1 inches) long. The flowers, which are arranged in panicles, have a greenish color, and have a rather disagreeable odor. The fruit is a purple one-centimeter berry containing a single seed.
Its flavor is due to an aromatic essential oil that makes up 0.5 to 1 percent of its composition. This oil is prepared by roughly pounding the bark, macerating it in sea-water, and then quickly distilling the whole. It is of a golden-yellow color, with the characteristic odor of cinnamon and a very hot aromatic taste. The pungent taste and scent come from cinnamic aldehyde or cinnamaldehyde and, by the absorption of oxygen as it ages, it darkens in color and develops resinous compounds. Chemical components of the essential oil include ethyl cinnamate, eugenol, cinnamaldehyde, beta-caryophyllene, linalool, and methyl chavicol.
Cinnamon is harvested by growing the tree for two years and then coppicing it. The next year a dozen or so shoots will form from the roots. These shoots are then stripped of their bark, which is left to dry. Only the thin (0.5 mm) inner bark is used; the outer woody portion is removed, leaving meter long cinnamon strips that curl into rolls ("quills") on drying; each dried quill comprises strips from numerous shoots packed together. These quills are then cut to 5-10 cm long pieces for sale.
Cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka, and the tree also is grown commercially at Tellicherry in southern India, Java, Sumatra, the West Indies, Brazil, Vietnam, Madagascar, Zanzibar, and Egypt. Sri Lanka cinnamon is a very thin smooth bark, with a light-yellowish brown color, a highly fragrant aroma.
Cassia, Cinnamonum aromaticum
Cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticum, synonym C. cassia), is an evergreen tree native to southern China and mainland Southeast Asia west to Myanmar. Like its close relative, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, also known as "true cinnamon" or "Ceylon cinnamon," it is used primarily for its aromatic bark, which is used as a spice, often under the culinary name of "cinnamon." Cassia's flavor, however, is less delicate than that of true cinnamon; for this reason the less expensive cassia is sometimes called "bastard cinnamon." The buds are also used as a spice, especially in India and in Ancient Rome.
The Cassia tree grows to 10-15 m tall, with grayish bark, and hard elongated leaves 10-15 cm long, that have a decidedly reddish color when young.
Whole branches and small trees are harvested for cassia bark, unlike the small shoots used in the production of true cinnamon; this gives cassia bark a much thicker and rougher texture than that of true cinnamon.
Cassia bark (both powdered and in whole, or "stick" form) is used as a flavoring agent, for candies, desserts, baked goods, and meat; it is specified in many curry recipes, where cinnamon is less suitable. Cassia is sometimes added to true cinnamon but is a much thicker, coarser product. Cassia is sold as pieces of bark or as neat quills or sticks.
Cassia is produced in both mainland and island Southeast Asia.
Up to the 1960s, Vietnam was the world's most important producer of Saigon cinnamon (C. loureiroi), a species so closely related to cassia that it was often marketed as cassia (or, in North America, "cinnamon"). Because of the disruption caused by the Vietnam War, however, production of cassia in the highlands of the Indonesian island of Sumatra was increased to meet demand, and Indonesia remains one of the main exporters of cassia today. Saigon cinnamon, only having become available again in the United States since the early twenty-first century, has an intense flavor and aroma and a higher percentage of essential oils than Indonesian cassia.
Tung Hing, a rarer form of cassia produced in China, is said to be sweeter and more peppery than Indonesian cassia.
Cinnamon and cassia
The name cinnamon is correctly used to refer to Ceylon cinnamon, C. verum, also known as "true cinnamon." However, the related species Cinnamomum aromaticum (Cassia or bastard cinnamon), Cinnamomum burmannii (Indonesia cinnamon), and Cinnamomum loureiroi (Saigon cinnamon or Vietnamese cinnamon) are sometimes sold labeled as cinnamon. True cinnamon is also sometimes confused with Cinnamomum tamala (Malabathrum). In particular, however, true cinnamon and cassia are confused in the marketplace.
Ceylon cinnamon, using only the thin inner bark, has a finer, less dense and more crumbly texture, and is considered to be less strong than cassia. Cassia is generally a medium to light reddish brown, is hard and woody in texture, and is thicker (2-3 mm thick), as all of the layers of bark are used.
Most of the cinnamon sold in supermarkets in the United States is actually cassia.
The two barks, C. verum and C. aromaticum, are easily distinguished when whole, and their microscopic characteristics are also quite distinct. Cinnamon sticks (or quills) have many thin layers and can easily be made into powder using a coffee or spice grinder, whereas cassia sticks are much harder, usually are made up of one thick layer, and are capable of damaging a spice or coffee grinder if one attempts to grind them without first breaking them into very small pieces.
It is a bit harder to tell powdered cinnamon from powdered cassia. When powdered bark is treated with tincture of iodine (a test for starch), little effect is visible in the case of pure cinnamon of good quality, but when cassia is present a deep-blue tint is produced, the intensity of the coloration depending on the proportion of cassia.
Cinnamon has been known from remote antiquity, and it was so highly prized among ancient nations that it was regarded as a gift fit for monarchs and other great potentates.
In classical times, four types of cinnamon were distinguished (and often confused):
- Cinnamon proper (Hebrew qinnamon), the bark of Cinnamomum zeylanicum from Sri Lanka
- Cassia (Hebrew qəṣi`â), the bark of Cinnamomum iners from Arabia and Ethiopia
- Malabathrum or Malobathrum (from Sanskrit तमालपत्त्रम्, tamālapattram, literally "dark-tree leaves"), Cinnamomum malabathrum from the North of India
- Serichatum, Cinnamomum aromaticum from Seres, that is, China.
Cinnamon spice was imported to Egypt from China as early as 2000 B.C.E. In Exodus 30:23-4, Moses is ordered to use both sweet cinnamon (Kinnamon) and cassia (qəṣî`â) together with myrrh, sweet calamus (qənê-bosem, literally cane of fragrance), and olive oil to produce a holy oil to anoint the Ark of the Covenant. Cinnamon also is mentioned in Proverbs 7:17-18, where the lover's bed is perfumed with myrrh, aloe, and cinnamon. Psalm 45:8 mentions the garments of Torah scholars that smell of myrrh, aloes, and cassia.
The first Greek reference to kasia is found in a poem by Sappho in the seventh century B.C.E.
Cinnamon also is alluded to by Herodotus and other classical writers. According to Herodotus, both cinnamon and cassia grow in Arabia, together with incense, myrrh, and ladanum, and are guarded by winged serpents. The phoenix builds its nest from cinnamon and cassia. But Herodotus mentions other writers that see the home of Dionysos, i.e. India, as the source of cassia. While Theophrastus gives a rather good account of the plants, but a curious method for harvesting (worms eat away the wood and leave the bark behind), Dioscorides seems to confuse the plant with some kind of water-lily.
Pliny (nat. 12, 86-87) gives a fascinating account of the early spice trade across the Red Sea in "rafts without sails or oars," obviously using the trade winds, that costs Rome 100 million sesterces each year. According to Pliny, a pound (the Roman pound, 327 g) of cassia, cinnamon, or serichatum cost up to 300 denars, the wage of ten month's labor. Diocletian's Edict on Maximum Prices from 301 C.E. gives a price of 125 denars for a pound of cassia, while an agricultural laborer earned 25 denars per day.
The Greeks used kásia or malabathron to flavor wine, together with absinth (Artemisia absinthia). Pliny mentions cassia as a flavoring agent for wine as well (Plin. nat. 14, 107f.). Malabathrum leaves (folia) were used in cooking and for distilling an oil used in a caraway-sauce for oysters by the Roman gourmet Gaius Gavius Apicius (de re coquinaria I, 29, 30; IX, 7). Malabathrum is among the spices that, according to Apicius, any good kitchen should contain.
Egyptian recipes for kyphi, an aromatic used for burning, included cinnamon and cassia from Hellenistic times onwards. The gifts of Hellenistic rulers to temples sometimes included cassia and cinnamon as well as incense, myrrh, and Indian incense (kostos), so we can conclude that the Greeks used it in this way too.
In the Middle Ages, the source of cinnamon was a mystery to the Western world. Arab traders brought the spice via overland trade routes to Alexandria in Egypt, where it was bought by Venetian traders from Italy who held a monopoly on the spice trade in Europe. The disruption of this trade by the rise of other Mediterranean powers such as the Mameluks Sultans and the Ottoman Empire was one of many factors that led Europeans to search more widely for other routes to Asia.
Portuguese traders finally discovered Ceylon (Sri Lanka) at the end of the fifteenth century, and restructured the traditional production of cinnamon by the salagama caste. The Portuguese established a fort on the island in 1518, and protected their own monopoly for over 100 years.
Dutch traders finally dislodged the Portuguese by allying with the inland Ceylon kingdom of Kandy. They established a trading post in 1638, took control of the factories by 1640, and expelled all remaining Portuguese by 1658. "The shores of the island are full of it," a Dutch captain reported, "and it is the best in all the Orient: when one is downwind of the island, one can still smell cinnamon eight leagues out to sea" (Braudel 1984).
The Dutch East India Company continued to overhaul the methods of harvesting in the wild, and eventually began to cultivate its own trees.
The British took control of the island from the Dutch in 1796. However, the importance of the monopoly of Ceylon was already declining, as cultivation of the true cinnamon tree spread to other areas, the more common cassia bark became more acceptable to consumers, and coffee, tea, sugar, and chocolate began to outstrip the popularity of traditional spices.
According to Food and Agriculture Organization, Indonesia produced almost 40% of the world cinnamon (canella) output in 2005 followed by China, India, and Vietnam.
Cinnamon bark is widely used as a spice. It is principally employed in cookery as a condiment and flavoring material, being largely used in the preparation of some kinds of desserts, chocolate, spicy candies, tea, hot cocoa, and liqueurs. In the Middle East, it is often used in savory dishes of chicken and lamb. In the United States, cinnamon and sugar are often used to flavor cereals, bread-based dishes, and fruits, especially apples; a cinnamon-sugar mixture is even sold separately for such purposes. Cinnamon can also be used in pickling. Cinnamon bark is one of the few spices which can be consumed directly.
Cinnamon is also used as an insect repellent (Beck 2006).
Cinnamon and health
As a warm and dry substance, in ancient times cinnamon was believed by doctors to cure snakebites, freckles, the common cold, and kidney troubles, among other ailments.
In medicne, cinnamon has been used to treat diarrhea and other problems of the digestive system (Felter 2007). It is high in antioxidant activity (Shan et al. 2005) and the essential oil of cinnamon also has antimicrobial properties (Lopez et al. 2005), which aid in the preservation of certain foods (GMF 2007).
In the media, "cinnamon" has been reported to have remarkable pharmacological effects in the treatment of type II diabetes. The plant material used in the study (Khan et al. 2003) was actually cassia, as opposed to true cinnamon. In this study, diabetics ingesting 1, 3, or 6 grams of cassia daily were followed. Those taking 6 grams shows changes after 20 days, and those taking lesser doses showed changes after 40 days. Regardless of the amount of cassia taken, they reduced their mean fasting serum glucose levels 18–29 percent, their triglyceride levels 23–30 percent, their LDL cholesterol 7–27 percent, and their total cholesterol 12–26 percent, over others taking placebos.
The effects, which may even be produced by brewing a tea from cassia bark, also may be beneficial for non-diabetics to prevent and control elevated glucose and blood lipid levels. Cassia's effects on enhancing insulin sensitivity appear to be mediated by polyphenols. Despite these findings, cassia should not be used in place of anti-diabetic drugs, unless blood glucose levels are closely monitored and its use is combined with a strictly controlled diet and exercise program.
Cinnamon has traditionally been used to treat toothache and fight bad breath. There is anecdotal evidence that consumption of cassia has an effect in lowering blood pressure, making it potentially useful to those suffering from hypertension.
European health agencies recently have warned against consuming high amounts of cassia, generally known just as cinnamon in U.S. markets, due to a toxic component called coumarin (Harris 2007). This is contained in much lower dosages in Ceylon cinnamon and in Cinnamomum burmannii. Coumarin is known to cause liver and kidney damage in high concentrations.
Though the spice cassia has been used for thousands of years, there is concern that there is as yet no knowledge about the potential for toxic buildup of the fat-soluble components in cassia, as anything fat-soluble could potentially be subject to toxic buildup. There are no concluded long term clinical studies on the use of cassia for health reasons.
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- Archer, A. W. 1988. Determination of cinnamaldehyde, coumarin and cinnamyl alcohol in cinnamon and cassia by high-performance liquid chromatography. Journal of Chromatography 447: 272-276.
- Beck, L. 2006. Cinnamon: December 2006's featured food. LeslieBeck. Retrieved May 1, 2007.
- Braudel, F. 1984. The Perspective of the World, Vol III in F. Braudel, 1984. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th century. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0060148454.
- Corn, C. 1998. The Scents of Eden: A Narrative of the Spice Trade. New York: Kodansha International. ISBN 1568362021.
- Felter, H. 2007. Cinnamomum: Cinnamon. Henriettes Herbal. Retrieved May 1, 2007.
- George Mateljan Foundation (GMF). 2007. Cinnamon, ground. WH Foods. Retrieved May 1, 2007.
- Harris, E. 2007. German Christmas cookies pose health danger. NPR. Retrieved May 1, 2007.
- Khan, A., M. Safdar, M. M. Ali Khan, K. N. Khattak, and R. A. Anderson. 2003. Cinnamon improves glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 26(12): 3215-3218.
- López P., C. Sánchez, R. Batlle, and C. Nerín. 2005. Solid- and vapor-phase antimicrobial activities of six essential oils: susceptibility of selected foodborne bacterial and fungal strains. J Agric Food Chem. 53(17): 6939-6946.
- Shan, B., Y. Z. Cai, M. Sun, and H. Corke. 2005. Antioxidant capacity of 26 spice extracts and characterization of their phenolic constituents. J Agric Food Chem. 53(20): 7749-7759.
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