We all know cinnamon—the familiar sweet and spicy smell, associated, at least for the Northerners, with the winter holidays and all the lovely pastry confections we so love to eat. Or well, at least I do, but that’s not saying much, seeing how my view on food is best expressed as a paraphrase of the old proverb: all foods are good except the bad ones.
This is a story about one of those latter ones.
Until a few years ago, I have lived in blissful ignorance of the fact that there is more than one kind of ‘cinnamon’, and that all of those kinds are (more or less) legally marketed labelled as “Cinnamon”. The rude awakening happened several years ago in Stockholm, on a winter day when I opened the jar of vodka I’d been infusing for 3 months in preparation for the Yule celebrations. The infusion was done with all the best (or so I thought at the time) ingredients – real wild blueberries picked that year, a bit of sugar, a few clove buds, and – incidentally – a stick of cinnamon I’d bought at a local supermarket in a jar so labelled. The reason the awakening was, as I said, rude, is the fact that the vodka, which should have had a lovely fruity and spicy flavour, was unexpectedly bitter for no discernable reason. Well, all the other flavour was still there, but so was a strong, hot bitterness, which resembled the flavour of cinnamon. Discouraged, I resolved to use the jar of undrinkable alcohol in desserts and mixed drinks (for which it was still suited), and thank the gods of booze for the fact that I also had a jar of infused rum, which had contained no cinnamon. The question still nagged at me though– why did it go bitter?
The answer was offered to me, if I remember correctly, by Inger Lagerman – an editor of a food and nutrition magazine in Stockholm. Upon hearing my complaint, she pointed out that what is labelled “cinnamon” in stores may or may not be real cinnamon, and if it turned something bitter, chances are that it was not. At the time, I had filed the datum mentally, but gave it no further thought, as stick cinnamon is not something I use on a regular basis.
Years later, I was researching something in relation to spice oils, and came across an article explaining the differences between cinnamon (aka Ceylon cinnamon or Cinnamomum verum) and what is commonly sold as such, namely the bark of a plant named cassia, or Cinnamomum aromaticum, Chinese cinnamon. The article confirmed what Inger had mentioned in regards to the cinnamon that I had used having been, in fact, cassia–which I recognized visually, since the two differ significantly in appearance unless ground (at which point they become virtually indistinguishable to the naked eye). The more worrying thing I noted, was the fact that cassia, unlike Ceylon cinnamon, contains fairly high levels of the compound coumarin–an aromatic also found in tonka bean and some other spices–and one which has been recently banned in several European countries due to its toxicity.
So far so good. I noted to myself that if I am buying cinnamon, to make sure what it is that I am buying and to not make the mistake again, and forgot about it for another few years, until my mother’s visit to UK to see me last summer. During that visit, we talked about food (obviously), healthy eating, and other random things, and she mentioned offhandedly that she has found that “cinnamon pills” help her lose weight by reducing appetite. That rang a few bells, and made me slightly suspicious, as I have never heard of normal cinnamon having that effect–and so I looked into the issue, and sure enough, it is the coumarin itself which has been shown to have appetite-suppressing effects.
I, of course, immediately informed my mother of the fact and told her that a chance of losing some weight is just not worth the risk of poisoning herself (to say the least), and she tossed the pills. The worrying thing, however, is that since cassia is widely sold as both, spice and apparently a food supplement (at least in the States), and since in its use as the latter, it apparently is given in doses high enough to suppress appetite, it is clear that the natural presence of coumarin is not regulated enough–or else that people are not even aware of the fact that more than one species gets commonly called “cinnamon” and that while Ceylon cinnamon has negligible coumarin content, the other varieties are far less harmless (and, incidentally, more bitter).
In short, I am not entirely sure whether I have any sensible advice on the matter beyond checking which cinnamon you are buying (if in stick form, Ceylon cinnamon is the fine papery one, and cassia looks like chunks of rough bark), or if it is ground, to inquire with the retailer about the species name of the tree (they should be able to provide that). Cassia tends to be slightly cheaper than Ceylon cinnamon, but as I have mentioned in the previous entry, some things are just not worth the money for the compromise of one’s health–or flavour of food, as the ruined bottle of infused vodka that Christmas in Stockholm would unhappily testify.