Cinnamon rolls, gingerbread cookies, pumpkin pies, and spiced tea.
As soon as I feel that hint of autumn crispness in the air, I shove the cinnamon and nutmeg to the front of my spice drawer and prepare myself for a season of warm, spicy treats.
I especially adore cinnamon since it’s a great way to add an extra touch of sweetness to a recipe without having to add any additional sugar. The Prairie Kids love it on their homemade applesauce, and I always make cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning.
But the cinnamon I’ve been using in my DIY Pumpkin Pie Spice and cinnamon rolls? It’s not what I thought it was…
I’ve been using an impostor for years. And I didn’t have a clue.
It’s pretty easy to trust labels, huh?
As a real foodie, I’m pretty obsessive about label-reading when I’m buying something at the store. I don’t care much about calories or fat content, but I always check the ingredient list for names I can’t pronounce, or the big “no-nos” like MSG or hydrogenated oils.
And when I buy a baggie of ground cinnamon, or cinnamon sticks, then by golly–I assume I’m buying honest-to-goodness cinnamon. And why wouldn’t I?
I was tricked.
Not too long ago, a reader commented on my Honey Cinnamon Peaches post and said the cinnamon sticks in my photo weren’t really true cinnamon sticks.
Of course they were cinnamon! They looked like cinnamon and smelled like cinnamon, so what else could they be?
Well, come to find out, my dear readers, I was wrong.
What’s the difference?
There are lots of different cinnamon varieties, but the two most common are:
- Cinnamomum zeylanicum or Cinnamomum Verum--commonly known as Ceylon cinnamon. It comes from Sri Lanka and is harvested from the inner bark of the tree. It is considered to be “true” cinnamon. If you live in Great Britain, it’s likely that you are already enjoying this variety which is said to have a sweeter and more subtle taste.
- Cinnamomum cassia or Chinese cinnamon or Cassia cinnamon. Cassia is a relative to Cinnamomum zeylanicum–BUT–they do not come from the same plant. Cassia has a less delicate flavor than Ceylon cinnamon, and is far cheaper to purchase. So if you wanted to get technical, I guess you could say cassia is still cinnamon since it is still in the same family of trees. But a culinary master will be the first to tell you that Ceylon cinnamon is the “real stuff,” and cassia is the less-expensive counterfeit.
And guess which one Americans are using?
Ding-ding-ding! If you said cassia, you win the prize!
That’s right, the FDA says it’s OK for cassia cinnamon to be labeled exactly the same as Ceylon cinnamon. (2)(3) Therefore, most of the cinnamon sold in the US is actually cassia. Who woulda thought?
So what? I don’t mind using cassia.
Obviously, I’ve grow up with cassia (even though I didn’t know it), so initially I wasn’t too broken-hearted to learn I’d been duped. I planned on continuing to use cassia cinnamon–especially since it’s way cheaper.
But there’s this thing called coumarin…
Coumarin is a sweet-smelling chemical that is naturally found in cassia. It’s even been used as an additive to perfumes and pipe tobaccos to improve the smell. However, this report from the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Germany caught my eye.:
“From use of coumarin as pharmaceutical, it is known that even relatively small doses can lead to liver damage in sensitive persons. The value of the Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) was established on the basis of the pure substance, i.e. of isolated coumarin. By conducting studies on the bioavailability of coumarin in the human organism, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has demonstrated that coumarin contained in the plant matrix of cinnamon is absorbed by the body to a similar degree as isolated coumarin. The TDI therefore also applies to coumarin in cinnamon. “
So basically, that’s saying that consuming large amounts of coumarin, even in the form of cinnamon, could result in liver damage.
How much is too much?
Eh… good question.
One study conducted in Norway suggests that the Total Daily Intake (TDI) of coumarin not exceed 0.07 mg/kg bw/day:
“Based on analyses of coumarin in Norwegian foods, intake calculations for children and adults were conducted, and a risk assessment of coumarin in the Norwegian population was performed. Intake estimates of coumarin show that small children eating oatmeal porridge several times a week sprinkled with cinnamon could have a coumarin intake of 1.63 mg/kg bw/day and may exceeding the TDI with several folds. Adults drinking cinnamon-based tea and consuming cinnamon supplements also can exceed TDI. The coumarin intake could exceed the TDI by 7- to 20-fold in some intake scenarios. Such large daily exceedances of TDI, even for a limited time period of 1–2 weeks, cause concern of adverse health effects.” (5)
So technically, dumping a generous helping of cinnamon on my kids’ oatmeal every single morning might not be such a good idea. Of course, there are a lot of variables happening here… Body weight, type of cinnamon, and exactly how much coumarin that particular batch contains. But still… I’m not sure if I really want to play around with it–especially on a long-term basis.
But–there’s good news.
Ceylon cinnamon contains very low amounts of coumarin. It’s cassia cinnamon that is the main offender here. One study showed that, on average, cassia cinnamon powder had 63 times more coumarin than Ceylon cinnamon powder. (4)
How do I tell them apart?
Sadly, it’s not easy for the average person to tell the difference between Ceylon and cassia. Now maybe if you have a palate like Chef Gordon Ramsey, it’s totally obvious… But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t know cassia cinnamon powder from Ceylon cinnamon powder if it hit me in the face.
Your best bet is to purchase your ground cinnamon from a reputable dealer who clearly labels their packages.
Thankfully, it IS fairly easy to tell the difference between Ceylon and cassia sticks.
Cassia sticks are much harder and are a single layer. More than likely, these are what you think of when someone mentions cinnamon sticks. They are usually darker brown, and you’ll have a tough time grinding these babies at home.
I found lots of options for real Ceylon cinnamon on Amazon–everything from ground powder to sticks or “quills.”
(These are affiliate links, just FYI)
- Organic Ceylon Cinnamon Sticks (8 oz container)
- Organic Ceylon Cinnamon Sticks (3 oz package)
- Organic Ground Ceylon Cinnamon (1 pound)
- Organic Ground Ceylon Cinnamon (1.76 oz shaker)
Am I losing sleep over this?
No, not at all. However, since I do use cinnamon liberally in my home, and I like “real” stuff anyway, I will be replacing all of my “fake” cinnamon with genuine Ceylon cinnamon.
If someone offers me a cinnamon roll made with cassia cinnamon? I’ll still eat it–no problem. It’s not something I’m going to spend a lot of time worrying about–although I do think it’s good to be aware of it.
If you are using a lot of home remedies that call for hefty amounts of cinnamon (like this incredible-looking Cinnamon-Coconut Oil-Honey Elixir), or using cinnamon as a daily supplement, I’d definitely seek out the real thing–just to be safe.
I hope you didn’t mind the detour from barnyard tips and homestead recipes today– but who would have thought cinnamon could be so interesting? Or maybe I’m just a kitchen geek.
P.S. I wrote the word cinnamon so many times in this post, it’s starting to look funny and I can’t tell if I spelled it right…