Cinnamon is seemingly everywhere during the autumn season. From sweet cinnamon rolls to spiced cookies to pumpkin-spiced drinks, there is no escaping this warm, sweet spice. You may not realize that there are two main types of spice labeled as cinnamon, and the one most commonly used in the U.S. is properly called cassia.
What Is Cinnamon?
Cinnamon is a spice made from the bark of species of the cinnamon tree. It can be purchased in its reddish-brown ground form or in the form of curled sticks (quills). The word cinnamon can legally be applied to both true cinnamon and cassia in the U.S., while in the U.K. and other countries cassia must be labeled "cassia" and cannot be labeled simply as "cinnamon." While most often used in baked goods, desserts, and drinks, cinnamon is also used in savory dishes in some types of cuisine. Cinnamon is a typical ingredient in pumpkin pie spice blend and garam masala spice blend.
Varieties of Cinnamon
In North America, the most common spice labeled as cinnamon is actually cassia, also known as Chinese cinnamon. It is harvested from the bark of the evergreen Cinnamomum aromaticum tree, which is native to southern Bangladesh, China, India, Uganda, and Vietnam. Cassia is cheaper to produce and has a bolder, less subtle flavor than true cinnamon, so it is sometimes referred to as "bastard cinnamon."
The spice more correctly known as cinnamon is harvested from the inner bark of the Cinnamomum verum tree. It is also known as Ceylon cinnamon, a reference to its native country of Sri Lanka (which was formerly known as Ceylon). It is commonly grown in Sri Lanka, India (particularly in the southern state of Kerala), Bangladesh, Brazil, Vietnam, and Madagascar, and other countries. Ceylon cinnamon has a delicate, nuanced flavor that works well in sweet and savory foods and drinks. It has a paler color than cassia and is comprised of many thin layers of bark rather than a single coiled strip of bark. True cinnamon is soft enough to be ground in a (clean) coffee grinder.
Other varieties of cinnamon include Cinnamomum aromaticum (a close relative of Ceylon cinnamon), Saigon cinnamon (also known as Vietnamese cinnamon or Cinnamon loureiroi), camphor laurel (Cinnamon camphora), malabathrum (Cinnamon tamala), and Indonesian cinnamon (Cinnamon burmannii).
Cinnamon and cassia have been used as a spice for thousands of years, even utilized during embalming in ancient Egypt and scenting anointing oil in the Old Testament. It was brought to these areas via land and sea spice routes from India and China, but the sources were kept secret by Arab spice traders. It is one of the spices that led European explorers to seek sea routes to Asia and the spice islands. Eventually, Portuguese explorers found the source in Ceylon and gained control of the trade. Wars followed that then turned control over to the Dutch and then the British.
What Does It Taste Like?
Cinnamon has a warm, sweet flavor and pungent aroma. The taste and scent come from cinnamaldehyde, which makes up most of the essential oil of cinnamon, but also 80 additional aromatic compounds. Cassia has a stronger flavor than the more subtle true cinnamon, which can have floral notes.
Cooking With Cinnamon
If you see cinnamon on the ingredient list for recipes in the U.S., you can safely assume it refers to the common cassia cinnamon from the supermarket. Some recipes call for cinnamon sticks (quills) while others call for ground (powdered) cinnamon. Ground cinnamon can be added before cooking or baking as it will maintain its flavor and aroma. When flavoring drinks, a cinnamon stick can add flavor without overpowering the other ingredients. Or a sprinkle of ground cinnamon can be used to top a hot drink such as hot chocolate, mocha, or latte.
Recipes With Cinnamon
Around the world, cinnamon and cassia are both commonly used to flavor foods and beverages. Although it is often used to flavor sweet foods, cassia can also lend warmth and flavor to savory meat and curry dishes. True cinnamon is sometimes used in savory dishes in the Middle East.
Where to Buy Cinnamon
Cassia, in the form of ground cinnamon and cinnamon sticks, is readily found in the spice section of the supermarket. True cinnamon is often labeled Ceylon cinnamon and is more likely to be found at a specialty spice store or gourmet grocery. Both kinds of cinnamon can be purchased online.
Store ground cinnamon or cinnamon quills (sticks) in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. As with all ground spices, it is best to buy small quantities as it quickly loses its flavor and aroma. For the most flavor, grind your own from cinnamon quills using a spice grinder. However, cassia quills are often too hard to grind, and this is best done with true cinnamon quills.
Health Benefits of Cinnamon
Significant scientific research has been done to see if cinnamon is effective in treating a variety of diseases and conditions, but none has had results that support using it as a treatment as an alternative to conventional medical care. For those with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, cinnamon has not proven to help in long-term control of blood sugar levels. Supplements containing cinnamon, calcium, and zinc did not help control high blood pressure in people with Type 2 diabetes. There is a concern that cassia contains coumarin, which in large quantities can worsen liver disease in those with that condition.
Cinnamon is used for a variety of purported health benefits in alternative medicine. These include treatment for colds, digestive problems and painful menstrual periods. In traditional medicine, it has been used for bronchitis.
Jaafarpour M, Hatefi M, Najafi F, Khajavikhan J, Khani A. The effect of cinnamon on menstrual bleeding and systemic symptoms with primary dysmenorrhea. Iran Red Crescent Med J. 2015;17(4):e27032. doi:10.5812/ircmj.17(4)2015.27032
Jaafarpour M, Hatefi M, Khani A, Khajavikhan J. Comparative effect of cinnamon and Ibuprofen for treatment of primary dysmenorrhea: a randomized double-blind clinical trial. J Clin Diagn Res. 2015;9(4):QC04-7. doi:10.7860/JCDR/2015/12084.5783