Cinnamon, as warming and sweet as it is, is a quintessential spice of the fall season. And this common spice that we might take for nothing more than the flavor of fall has a long history of use as both food and medicine. From immune health to cardiovascular health, the health benefits of cinnamon make it so much more than just a spice cabinet staple. Plus, it’s flippin’ delicious! Today, cinnamon can be found in everything from holiday pies to toothpaste.
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As a tropical spice that is commercially produced primarily in Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Madagascar, and Seychelles, for most of us, cinnamon travels a long way and passes through many hands to get to our kitchens.
Believe it or not, cinnamon actually played a big role in colonial expansion. In the early 1500s, Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, was invaded by the Portuguese in an attempt to monopolize the cinnamon trade. Several hundred years later, the Dutch East India Company took over and dominated the cinnamon trade up until the early-mid 1800s, effectively spreading cinnamon all over the globe.
Cinnamon was (and is!) adored by everyone.
But there’s more to this everyday spice than meets the eye. Because of its origin, traditional methods of processing, and the multitude of unique varieties and uses, cinnamon is quite an interesting plant!
Meet Cinnamon (Cinnamomum spp.)
Here’s the skinny:
- Cinnamon is an evergreen tree, and when left to its own devices, it can grow 30-50 feet tall. However, commercially grown cinnamon is grown as a bush and typically maxes out around 10 feet tall.
- The leaves are long and oval-shaped, typically anywhere from 3-7″ long. Cinnamon flowers are small, whitish-green, and arranged in panicles.
- In more commercial operations, a cinnamon tree is typically ready for harvest at 2-3 years old. The shoots are then coppiced (harvested by cutting back to the ground) and left to regrow as many 2-3 times a season. Cinnamon trees can typically be harvested from for 40-50 years!
- The bark of the cinnamon tree is harvested right after monsoon season, when all the rain and humidity has made the cinnamon bark softer and easier to harvest.
- As the bark dries after harvest, it rolls into quills, what we often refer to as cinnamon sticks.
- There are hundreds of types of cinnamon, but only 4 are typically grown commercially. These are:
- Ceylon (true cinnamon) – Cinnamomum verum (formerly C. zeylanicum)
- Cassia – C. cassia (or C. aromaticum)
- Saigon – C. loureiroi
- Korintje – C. burmannii
- Cinnamaldehyde is the primary essential oil found in cinnamon and is responsible for its characteristic taste and smell.
Get To Know The Real Cinnamon
While there are many varieties of cinnamon, the two most common are Cassia and Ceylon cinnamon. Cassia cinnamon is, by far, the most ubiquitous variety. Because it’s generally less expensive and has a stronger flavor than Ceylon, it’s the most common variety on the market shelves.
However, to most untrained palates, the two are relatively indistinguishable.
- often referred to as “true cinnamon”
- grown in Sri Lanka and southern India
- typically a lighter brown color
- more expensive than Cassia cinnamon and is more difficult to find in groceries
- has a milder, more delicate flavor (and perhaps even slight floral notes)
- the bark is generally in thinner sheets, which are nested into each other, resulting in a flakier appearance
- grown mostly in China
- typically darker in color, often appearing reddish
- has a much more intense flavor (and is often preferred for its stronger flavor)
- contains a higher concentration of cinnamaldahyde
- the bark is typically thick and usually single layered (compared to the thin, multi-layered, and flaky-looking Ceylon)
- the most commonly sold and available cinnamon in the United States
Culinary Uses of Cinnamon
Cinnamon’s most prominent use is as a food. It’s been used as a spice to flavor everything from curries, teas, marinades, chewing gum, soups, baked goods and desserts, as well as liqueurs. Chocolate and cinnamon is a popular combination, and cinnamon is a key ingredient in 5-spice powder, a Chinese blend of 5 or more spices representing the traditional Chinese elements of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and pungent.
Cinnamon bark essential oil is also often used in food. Because it generally yields a more consistent flavor, cinnamon bark oil has replaced powdered cinnamon as a flavoring in much of the commercialized food industry.
Try These Recipes With Cinnamon
Simple Cinnamon Tea
Cinnamon & Pear Cordial
Savory Cinnamon & Spice Herbal Salt
Cinnamon & Rose Pear Upside-Down Cake
Coffee & Cacao Cocktail Bitters
No-Bake Pumpkin Pie
DIY Pumpkin Pie Spice with Dandelion Root
The Health Benefits of Cinnamon
It might be a little surprising, but many of the most commonly used herbs and spices in our kitchens live double lives as incredible plant medicines.
The health benefits of cinnamon go far beyond the alluring aroma of fall desserts and sweet treats. It’s not really hard to believe that this spice is beloved worldwide. After all, what would our apple pie and pumpkin-spiced everything be without cinnamon?!
As a plant medicine, cinnamon is considered to be:
- Gastrointestinal tonic
- Expectorant (helps to remove excess mucus)
And with such a wide variety of medicinal actions, it has many medicinal uses.
- Cinnamon bark oil is used in the pharmaceutical industry in products for asthma and colds/coughs due to its expectorant and fever-reducing properties.
- Cinnamon helps to increase warmth and circulation, thereby supporting healthy and efficient digestion.
- It can help relax uterine muscles, helping to calm painful menstrual cramps. Cinnamon tea is a popular remedy for menstrual cramps.
- It can help to dissolve excess mucus, aiding in resolving coughs and lung congestion. For this reason, cinnamon can also be effective in easing respiratory allergy symptoms.
- Studies have demonstrated effectiveness in helping to decrease blood sugar levels and cholesterol.
Potential Side Effects of Cinnamon
Cinnamon is generally safe for consumption, although caution is advised when taken large doses of it (more than 1 teaspoon per day) for long periods of time.
For people with warm constitutions, cinnamon can be too warming. And while rare, some people may experience allergy symptoms when consuming cinnamon.
And as with many medicinal herbs, cinnamon is contraindicated during pregnancy due to a slight emmenagogue effect.
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Resources & Further Reading
- Engels, G. & Brinckmann, J. (2012). Cinnamon. Herbalgram, 95:1-5. Retrieved from http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue95/hg95-herbpro-cinnamon.html
- Chen, P., Sun, J., & Ford, P. (2014) Differentiation of the Four Major Species of Cinnamons (C. burmannii, C. verum, C. cassia, and C. loureiroi) Using a Flow Injection Mass Spectrometric (FIMS) Fingerprinting Method. J Agric Food Chem, 62(12): 2516–2521. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3983393/
- Garner-Wizard, M. (2016). Review of health benefits of cinnamon. Retrieved from http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbclip/541/081546-541.html
- American Botanical Council. (2000). Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs: Cinnamon bark. Retrieved from http://cms.herbalgram.org/expandedE/Cinnamonbark.html
- McBride, K. (2019) The Herbal Kitchen.
- Tilgner, S. M., (2009) Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth.
DISCLAIMER: The information given in this article is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult with your healthcare practitioner before consuming certain herbs & medicinal foods, especially if pregnant, nursing, or taking any prescription medications.