Here's something that may come as a surprise: That cinnamon you've been stirring into your oatmeal cookie dough and sprinkling on raisin toast is probably cassia, a close relative of Ceylon, or true cinnamon. Like Ceylon, cassia comes from the bark of tropical evergreen trees typically found in Asia. Bold and spicy, it has long been the American favorite (and the FDA allows it to be sold as "cinnamon"); Europeans prefer the subtler, citrusy Ceylon. Both were cornerstones of the lucrative spice trade dating back to the 16th century -- and they continue to deliver a host of benefits for cooking and health.
Long valued in Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine for its warming qualities, both varieties of cinnamon have long served as an appetite stimulant and as a remedy for abdominal pain and gas. In the past few years, though, the spices have garnered measured praise for a different set of benefits.
Recent studies of Ceylon cinnamon, for instance, show that the bark works as a potent antioxidant; out of almost 300 foods tested for antioxidant capacity, ground cinnamon ranks third. Not to be left behind, the cassia variety may have a powerful effect on blood sugar. In one 2003 study, it lowered the blood sugar of type 2 diabetic subjects up to 29 percent, an effect that lasted for almost three weeks. It also reduced the testers' triglyceride, LDL, and total cholesterol levels-a significant benefit, since people with diabetes also suffer from an increased risk of heart disease.
Just because a little of the spice boosts your health doesn't mean more is better; cassia contains roughly five percent coumarin, which can cause liver irritation in sensitive people. According to health authorities in Germany (which regulates cassia usage), we shouldn't eat more than about R teaspoon of cassia a day for every 100 pounds of body weight. On the other hand, true, or Ceylon, cinnamon contains much lower levels of coumarin.
How To Buy
If you're purchasing the sticks cut from the bark of the cassia tree, look for a deep, rich, reddish brown color. Thick and tough, they're hard to grind at home, so if you need it ground, buy the powder, which should last about a year. If you'd like to try Ceylon cinnamon rather than cassia, find it in specialty spice shops or ethnic markets.
Cinnamon sticks lend a taste of the exotic when added into stews and meat dishes. They also make flavorful stirring sticks for hot cocoa or mulled cider.