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Monday, October 20, 2014

A Short Summary of Cinnamon

Cinnamon’s history goes way, way back to ancient times. Back in the day (as in during the Shang or Yin dynasty circa 1600 B.C. and Ancient Egypt during Hatshepsut circa 1478 B.C.), cinnamon was one hot commodity. The Egyptians favored using cinnamon during embalming, while King Solomon is rumored to have searched the globe for cinnamon to adorn his temple.

Cinnamon Trade Route during ancient Roman times
(Map from The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire by J. Innes Miller) 

In ancient Greece and Rome, cinnamon (along with many other spices from the exotic East) was touted around to prove one’s status. After all, you had to be someone very special (read: wealthy) to afford this sweetly scented spice.

Fast forward a few years to the 1500s, and cinnamon was at the center of epic trade battles between the Portuguese, the Dutch, and eventually, the British. As Sophie Grigson points out in her book Spices, if you look at a phone book in Sri Lanka today, you’ll find Da Silvas next to Van Eycks next to Grigsons next to Wickremasinghe – in part because of the cinnamon trade.

Today, the battle of cinnamon is mostly reduced to terminologies and chemical compounds.

If you’re in the habit of keeping tabs on spice news, then over the past few years you may have seen some articles about “true” cinnamon versus “cassia” cinnamon. “True” cinnamon refers to Sri Lankan or Ceylon cinnamon, a species of cinnamon native to Sri Lanka. “Cassia” cinnamon is another species of cinnamon native to China and Indonesia. (More on these varieties in a later post). In fact, there are several (loads, even) species of the genus Cinnamomum, a tree in the evergreen family.

Now comes the tricky part: cassia varieties of cinnamon contain a naturally occurring chemical called coumarin, which, when consumed excessively (emphasis on excessively), causes liver damage. Ceylon cinnamon, on the other hand, contains a negligible amount of coumarin. The fear of excessive cassia consumption has even prompted the Danish government to restrict levels of cassia in the beloved kanelsnegle (cinnamon roll). While this sounds like cause for concern and may prompt you to only buy Ceylon cinnamon, unless you’re in the habit of eating tablespoonfuls of cassia for two weeks straight, then you shouldn’t worry. Speaking of impacts on health, there is even recent research that shows cinnamon may help lower blood sugar levels.

So there you have it. From an ancient spice to trade conquests to a scientific debate, there is much more to cinnamon than being just that spice you add to your apple pie. Curious to try a few varieties? Stop by Bazaar Spices – we have three!

This post is part of our series on cinnamon. For others in the series check out:
A Short Summary of Cinnamon
What’s the Difference? Ceylon, Korintje, and Saigon Cinnamon
Orange Pomander Balls with Ceylon Cinnamon and Cloves
Cinnamon Spiked Tomato Sauce
Raw Vegan Cinnamon Rolls

Other Sources:
The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire by J. Innes Miller
Spices by Sophie Grigson


Kara Elder grew up playing in the kitchen cupboards and reading cookbooks for fun while watching her mom cook tasty Mexican meals. After graduating with a degree in Russian, she found herself increasingly interested in reading food blogs and planning menus. Kara, her mom, and her sister started a food blog of their own, The Troika Table. Kara is a Bazaar Spices Team Member and also works for Joan Nathan, a DC-based cookbook author and food writer. 

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