All About Cinnamon
The spice that is called cinnamon comes from the bark of the cinnamon tree. This tree has between 50 to 200 species, the exact count has not been agreed upon by all botanists. The most common varieties are the Cinnamomum zeylancium, or Ceylon cinnamon, and Cinnamomum aromaticum, or Chinese cinnamon. Chinese cinnamon is also called cassia. Cassia is a relative of cinnamon; the differences in the two will be discussed later.
The cinnamon tree is of the species Cinamomum zeylanicum, genus Cinamomum, family Lauraceae, order Laurales, class Magnoliopsida, phylum Magnoliophyta, kingdom Plantae. The tree is an evergreen tree that can grow to a height of thirty-two to forty-nine feet tall. It has oblong-shaped leaves that can grow to a length of two to seven inches long. The bark of the cinnamon tree is yellowish and smooth. Both the leaves and bark have the familiar cinnamon smell. The tree thrives in wet, tropical climates at low altitudes.
When harvesting cinnamon bark, the tree is grown for two years, and then it is coppiced. The next year, around a dozen shoots form on the coppiced stump. These shoots are stripped of their pith and outer bark and the inner bark is left to dry. This remaining bark curls into quills. During manufacture several quills are rolled together and each quill cluster is chopped to a uniform length. It is then shipped around the world. However, before this system was introduced cinnamon had been around for about 3,400 years.
Cinnamon’s history is certainly a long one. Cinnamon appears several times in the Old Testament, during which time it was considered a gift fit for monarchs. It was first exported to Egypt from China c. 2000 B.C. The ancient Egyptians used it as a beverage flavoring as well as an embalming agent (body cavities were filled with spiced preservatives). In Egypt it became more precious than gold. During the first century A.D. the Roman emperor Nero burned a year’s supply on the grave of his wife. He did such a thing to show how large his loss was.
In the Middle Ages, Arab traders delivered cinnamon from Egypt to Venetian traders via overland routes. To many the true origination point of cinnamon was a mystery. However, when the Ottoman Empire and Mameluk Dynasties disrupted trade with the Italians, many countries’ leaders began to find overseas trade routes to Asia.
In 1518 the Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka and brutally protected their possession of cinnamon by building forts on the shores of the island. The Portuguese had the Sri Lankan government shipping 242,508 pounds annually during their more than one hundred year reign. During their command of Sri Lanka the Portuguese modified the original harvesting process. In the early 1600s the Dutch defeated the Portuguese and took command of the island. After the takeover the Dutch introduced the harvesting process that is still the standard today. In 1796 the English defeated the Dutch as commander of the island, but by this time cinnamon growth had spread to other areas, so the British could not create a monopoly, as the Portuguese and Dutch had. Also, the consumers back home accepted cassia more than before, and coffee, tea, and chocolate began to lessen the need for the traditional spices.
Cinnamon has many uses. The most common is in desserts such as apple pie. However, there are so many more ways to use cinnamon. Cinnamon is used to sweeten cereals and fruits, and occasionally in pickling. Those are just some of cinnamon’s traditional American uses.
Cinnamon, of course, is used for desserts in other countries, but some countries have uses for it other than just desserts. In Sri Lanka and India cinnamon is used as a spice in their traditional spicy foods and fragrant rice dishes. It also has uses in those countries as a tea flavoring. In India the part used as the spice is the bark. It is fried in hot oil until it has unrolled. Other ingredients such as tomatoes and onions to lessen the temperature are added.
In the Middle Eastern countries cinnamon is used to flavor their lamb dishes. It is also used in their curries and pilaus. Occasionally cinnamon is used to spice creams, syrups, and warmed wines. However, the largest importer of cinnamon is Mexico where they use it in hot chocolate, coffee, tea, and other delicacies.
A daring person may wish to try cinnamon in other uses than just desserts. Here are several uses of cinnamon not commonly thought of by American cooks. It can be used as a beverage flavoring, like in Mexico or ancient Egypt. Two good beverages are these, simmer cinnamon sticks with milk and honey, or add the powder to coffee. It can also be used to add an unexpected flavor to burritos or nachos by flavoring the beans as they cook. However, cinnamon should be added shortly before serving, since it can become very bitter if cooked for too long. For more recipes and ideas visit this website: WHFoods: Cinnamon, ground.
Before the use of cinnamon it has to be purchased. There are three different forms of cinnamon. They are cinnamon sticks, powdered cinnamon, and cinnamon buds. Cinnamon sticks and powdered cinnamon are most common, while cinnamon buds are mostly used in China. The majority of “cinnamon” in commercial grocery stores is cassia. It is stated, most likely, on the back of the package. Ceylon cinnamon is usually harder to find, but many specialty shops should have it. If it is not at a local spice shop then several online spice shops carry it. The best cinnamon option is organic, as it has not been tampered with and still has all its original nutrients.
When storing cinnamon, remember that it does lose its potency after six months for powdered cinnamon and one year for cinnamon sticks. After a year for both it is pretty safe to assume that it is not fresh and new cinnamon should be purchased. A quick way to determine the freshness of cinnamon is to smell it. If it smells sweet, then it is most likely fresh. For storage, cinnamon, although grown in the heat, does stay freshest when it is stored in a cool, dark place. A good place to store cinnamon is in a refrigerator, as that will help extend its shelf life.
Cinnamon is a nutrient bank. It has some very hard to obtain nutrients in large quantities. With these nutrients and essential oils it can perform many amazing medical functions. It can act as an anti-microbial in stored foods, thus increasing their shelf life. In a study published in the August 2003 issue of International Journal of Food Microbiology the addition of a few drops of cinnamon’s essential oil to three ounces of refrigerated carrot broth inhibited the growth of the bacteria Bacillus cereus for sixty days. In another sample of refrigerated carrot broth, of the same quantity as the first, without the cinnamon oil, the bacteria flourished, despite the cold temperature.
In another laboratory test cinnamon was found to be an anti-fungal food. In that test cinnamon stopped the growth of almost all of the yeasts that the anti-fungal drug fluconazole could stop. This information could make cinnamon an organic alternative to the commercial preservatives used by many food manufacturers.
Cinnamon can perform anti-clotting actions, as well. It accomplishes this by inhibiting the secretion of the inflammatory acid arachidonic acid thus reducing non-injury related blood clots. It reduces the formation of an inflammatory messaging molecule known as thromboxane A2, as well. This act also makes it an anti-inflammatory food.
Cinnamon’s sweet smell, as captivating as it is, could help with mental diseases. A recent study presented by Dr. P. Zoladz at the 2004 meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences shows that the scent of cinnamon stimulates the cells of the brain. Specific areas of improvement were the following: attentional process response, visual recognition memory, working memory, and visual-motor speed. The project subjected the patients to four odor situations: no odor, peppermint odor, jasmine odor, and cinnamon odor. Cinnamon emerged as the clear winner in producing positive effects in brain function. Since they are encouraged by these results the researchers are now evaluating, or planning the evaluation of, the effects of cinnamon in increasing the cognitive response in the elderly, test-anxious individuals, and possibly patients with cognitive declining illnesses.
On top of all that cinnamon can reduce the risk of colon cancer. Cinnamon contains calcium and fiber. Calcium and fiber are able to bind to bile salts in the body and help remove them. This removal, in turn, prevents the salts from doing damage to the colon, which results in a lower risk of colon cancer. With the removal of bile salts the body must break down cholesterol to make new bile salts, thus resulting in lower cholesterol levels. With this feature cinnamon can help reduce the risks of heart disease.
Cinnamon in its truest form comes from Sri Lanka. The “cinnamon” found in most supermarkets is a Chinese relative of cinnamon called cassia. The differences in the two are primarily the way they are manufactured and their tastes. Cassia is grown in China, Vietnam, and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Cinnamon, on the other hand, is grown, ideally, in Sri Lanka, but is also commercially grown in Java, Sumatra, the West Indies, Brazil, Madagascar, and Egypt.
Cinnamon has a sweeter taste than cassia, making cinnamon more practical in desserts. This taste difference may come from the different growing conditions, or from the manufacturing process. Only the inner bark is used in Ceylon cinnamon, whereas all of the bark is used when making cassia. The differences in used bark result in different textures, as well. Cassia has a woodier, rougher texture, where cinnamon has a smoother, finer texture. Despite this cassia is still the “cinnamon” of choice in America.
Cinnamon is a very interesting spice. It has been around approximately 4000 years, yet is still as good as new, it is one of the few “sweets” that are healthy, and it is certainly still as good as gold in some countries, just not as hard to acquire. I hope this encourages you to try cinnamon in an unexpected way. You may be surprised at how much better the food tastes.
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