Cinnamon – Friend or Foe?

Cinnamomum is a botanical genus of the laurel family that includes hundreds of tropical and subtropical evergreen trees. There are at least five species grown for their inner bark, which is dried and sold rolled or as a powder, and commonly known as cinnamon: C. verum (formerly C. zeylanicum), called Ceylon or “true” cinnamon, originally from Sri Lanka (Ceylon), sometimes considered to have the most delicate flavor; C. aromaticum (formerly C. cassia), also known as cassia or Chinese cinnamon, which has a strong flavor; C. burmannii, known as Korintje or Indonesian cinnamon; C. loureirii, called Saigon or Vietnamese cinnamon; and C. tamala, from the Himalayas, which is the one commonly used in Indian cooking (the leaves are also used, known as Indian bay).  In North America, the name “cinnamon” may be used either for cassia or Ceylon cinnamon, and canela is the Spanish word; the most common in Canada and the USA is cassia, whereas Ceylon cinnamon has been traditionally grown and used in Mexico for so long that it is also known as “Mexican cinnamon.” If the spice is bought in roll form, it is easy to differentiate Mexican cinnamon from cassia, since the first is a bundle of several thin layers rolled together like a cigar, called quill (photo below, left), whereas the latter appears to be a thick, single layer of bark, more like a stick (right):

cinnamon Ceylon and cassia

In terms of health benefits, cinnamon has been cherished as a medicinal plant since ancient times, from embalming in Egypt (anti-microbial) to digestive aid in China (anti-inflammatory) and has been studied in modern alternative medicine to regulate blood pressure (hypotensive), sugar levels (anti-diabetic), as well as to reduce activity of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases (anti-oxidant). Both cassia and Mexican cinnamon present the essential oils and resinous compounds responsible for these benefits.

Unfortunately, cinnamon has been associated with adverse effects, due to coumarin, a compound known to cause kidney, liver and lung damage in lab studies, and isolated incidents of similar effects have been reported in humans.  Cassia is known to contain up to 1% coumarin, while Mexican cinnamon contains minimal amounts, something around 250 times less than cassia.  It is recommended not to exceed one teaspoon in powdered form as a daily consumption of cassia, or about 2 ½ for Mexican cinnamon. Ground cinnamon is usually made from cassia or a mixture of different barks so, if large quantities of the powdered form  are needed, it would be safer to purchase Mexican cinnamon quills and grind them at home.  Mexican cinnamon is easier to crumble than cassia (which are so hard that they have been known to break blender and spice grinder blades!), but harder to find in Canada, and more expensive than cassia, so if cinnamon is to be used parsimoniously, it is still safe and definitely more affordable to purchase ground cinnamon.

In terms of flavour, Mexican cinnamon has a more delicate profile than cassia, not necessarily better or worse, just different.  When asked for preferences in blind tests, I think people tend to choose the ones that bring back memories of familiar preparations: Christmas cookies in Germany, moussaka in Greece, café de olla in Mexico … I love cooked apples paired with Mexican cinnamon, which was my mom’s special way to sooth sore bellies, but I cannot imagine Cinnabon™ rolls with any other than their trademark bold cinnamon, Makara™, exclusively extracted for them from Indonesian cassia trees.

Cinnamon turns a bowl of porridge, or a slice of sugary toast into special breakfast treats; it elevates sweet buns, donuts and churros to the next level; and cinnamon imparts extra warmth to beverages such as mulled apple cider and the aforementioned Mexican coffee from the pot (“café de olla”).  I keep both cassia sticks and Mexican cinnamon quills in my spice drawer, to use depending on the application, along with a jar of ground cinnamon for baking and sprinkling.

A note of caution: Other than the dangers of coumarin, there are other possible adverse effects from cinnamon.  Interference with other medications is often mentioned; since cinnamon is useful for regulating blood sugar and pressure, logically it might interfere with prescription drugs to treat diabetes and hypertension. Cinnamon, or any other herbal remedies should be used for medicinal applications only as recommended by a physician or other qualified health professional.  Finally, ground cinnamon has been identified as a chocking and lung-blocking hazard when consumed dry, by itself, and in large amounts, so it must definitely not be used in that fashion, or for dangerous challenges.

I am joining Tummy Tuesday, hosted by Mary @ Cactus Catz

19 thoughts on “Cinnamon – Friend or Foe?

  1. One thing worth noting about cinnamon — it might be related to regulating blood sugar, but it helps you lose weight. My father packed cinnamon into those empty pill things you can buy at the healthfood stores and made his own “cinnamon vitamin”. He lost more than twenty pounds by taking them each day — without changing anything else. My sister followed his example and lost weight too as well as Carol. If you buy cinnamon vitamins at the store, they usually have some other filler with them. I don’t know how many a day of those “cinnamon vitamins” you need to take to lose weight though. I don’t think it was just one.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow, weight loss just with the pills. There is always the recommendation of not exceeding one teaspoon a day for ground cinnamon, and never swallow it dry. I am going to post about Mexican coffee from the pot as soon as the weather changes; I think it is a very tasty and low-calorie way to get your cinnamon fix.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. People should check with their doctors but I know Carol takes more than one cinnamon pill a day but she buys over the counter so it has fillers. After she started doing that her cholesterol (I think? or it could be her sugar count) became much better so her doctor told her to keep doing it. She liked losing the weight too but the good bloodwork was more important to her. I add my cinnamon to yogurt but I’m erratic about doing it — mostly just for taste — so it’s not had any part in my losing weight.

        Ooooh, can’t wait for the Mexican coffee post.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. It won’t be long before the temperature starts to drop around here … in the meantime, I just remembered a Mexican cold drink with lots of cinnamon in it; I shall post the recipe either tomorrow or Friday 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. the cinnamon rice drink, starts with an H? sorry a lot of time I don’t remember something but I might remember the first letter. I think I tried to make that once. I don’t think it went well, lol, but I like drinking it at the restaurant if it’s the one I am thinking of.


      4. Yes! Horchata, that was it. Ooooh, magic tricks with food … laughing. Maybe I’ll have better success with the way you show it.


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