According to Herodotus, the Greek ‘father of history’, Cinnamon grows in shallow lakes, protected by Cinnamologus, a giant, fierce winged creature that screeches horribly and pecks out the eyes of those seeking to harvest the tree. Brave Arabic cinnamon gatherers would trick the birds by leaving large pieces of meat around, which, when carried back to their nests, would cause the nest to fall to the ground from where the bark could be collected. This mysterious story seems to have persisted in Europe for many centuries, and it took more than 1500 years for those in the West to eventually find out the true sources of cinnamon.
WHERE IS CINNAMON FROM?
The sweet and aromatic spice we know as cinnamon is the inner bark from one of several species of tree that carry the name. There are two main sources of cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, referred to as ‘true cinnamon’ or Ceylon cinnamon, which originated in Sri Lanka, and several other species of the genus Cinnamomum, commonly called cassia, which originated in Southeast Asia and China. Cinnamomum Cassia is also known as ‘Chinese cinnamon’.
There are differences in texture too, the quills of cassia cinnamon being a harder, dark brown hollow tube, whereas ‘true cinnamon’ is a softer and more brittle light brown tube, looking somewhat like a rolled cigar. So be careful, true cinnamon will be easily ground up in your coffee or spice grinder, but cassia may do it some damage.
Along with scary bat-like creatures that protected the trees and pecked at the eyes of those who tried to harvest the bark, it was also believed at one point that cinnamon was fished out of nets that trawled in the Nile. Our old pal Pliny the Elder, in writing his Natural History in the first century C.E., noted that these tales were spread by Arabic traders to raise the price of their goods, but the confusion in the West as to the true origins lasted until the 16th century, when the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka. Pliny also mentioned that 350 grams of cinnamon was equal in worth to 5 kg of silver!
Cinnamon therefore remained highly sought after, expensive and mysterious for a very long time. The high levels of essential oils in cassia made it of value to the ancient Egyptians as a perfuming agent during the mummification process. The Roman emperor Nero reportedly burned more cinnamon than Arabia could produce in a year on the funeral pyre of his consort Poppaea, to atone for the role he played in her death.
The lure of spices has led to much exploration. Spices enticed Greek sailors into the Indian Ocean; led Indian merchants to Arabia and Africa; and drew Arabic sailors to China and Indonesia. The desire for cinnamon, among other spices, and the rupture of the spice trade caused by the fall of Constantinople in 1453, was part of the incentive for the massive European voyages of exploration that set off in search of direct routes to the much sought after Spice Islands.
Chinese medicine uses cinnamon to warm the body, energize the circulation, and balance the energy in the upper and lower body.
In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, cinnamon is used externally for sore joints and rheumatism, and is washed around the mouth to alleviate toothache and sore gums. It is also used as a decongestant, and is added to steam inhalations to help with respiratory symptoms. If taken at the first signs of a cold it is said to prevent the cold from developing further.
There is good news and bad news about cinnamon. Here’s the good news: Studies have shown that the active ingredient in cinnamon, cinnamaldehyde, which provides the flavour and aroma of cinnamon, has antihyperglycemic properties. This means it could counteract high levels of glucose in the blood. Another study has shown that it can reduce bad cholesterols and fasting blood glucose in people with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, and yet another shows reductions in blood glucose levels and food intake in diabetic rats. That all sounds pretty good.
For a nice easy explanation of diabetes, check out this video.
But a minor word of caution: Small amounts of cinnamon have been used for thousands of years with no reported side effects. Recently, European health agencies have warned against consuming large amounts of cassia cinnamon. This is because of a moderately toxic compound, coumarin, contained in the bark, and this coumarin can have a damaging effect on the liver. This hepatotoxic compound, which is something that damages the liver, was reported in people consuming gram amounts in the form of cinnamon capsules.
A distinction must be made also between cassia cinnamon and true cinnamon. Cassia cinnamon contains roughly 6 to 12 mg of coumarin per teaspoon, and therefore eating a whole teaspoon per day would probably exceed the safe levels. ‘True’ cinnamon, on the other hand, contains only trace amounts of coumarin,
In terms of the cinnamon you buy at the supermarket, and the cinnamon flavourings in products, chances are it is cassia cinnamon, as it is cheaper and more widely available than true cinnamon.
Cinnamon has been used in the past to help preserve foods, and some suggest, to mask the smell and taste of spoiled foods. This makes sense as cinnamon oil has been shown to have good antibacterial properties, and we all know how sweet and pungent the aroma is.
Other research suggests anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and blood pressure-lowering effects, but the study’s authors caution that more human data is needed.
In terms of food these days, cinnamon is added to things like French Toast, cinnamon rolls, sprinkled on coffee and hot chocolate. But it’s not just for sweet dishes. It is an ingredient in curry powder, chai, and mulled wine recipes, meatballs, pork, fish curry, and many more.
Have a go at this tasty Cinnamon Whisky Pear recipe. Great for an easy sweet dessert. Enjoy!