In Search of Cinnamon

Cinnamon’s essential oils are prized for their aroma and flavour in the food and perfume industries but essential oil content can vary considerably when grown under different conditions, leading to variations in flavour. Those of us who use natural flavours need to bear this in mind, for, analogous to a fine wine, Mother Nature plays a powerful role in the creation of the final product.

Cinnamon’s essential oils are prized for their aroma and flavour.

Not all cinnamon is created equal, as I discovered when I was creating different ICHAI blends. There are around 250 different species from the genus Cinnamomum, but only a handful of cinnamon species are used commercially. Significantly, what most people know as cinnamon is actually cassia (Cinnamomum cassia) or Chinese Cinnamon, botanically very similar to so-called true cinnamon or Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum), but still a different species. Unfairly referred to as Bastard Cinnamon or False Cinnamon, cassia has been used since antiquity for its culinary and medicinal properties. The flavour and aroma of cassia is stronger than that of Ceylon cinnamon and lasts longer when ground. It is therefore ground cassia that most of us enjoy the flavour of in baking or sprinkled on our hot chocolate. The cinnamon referred to in the old-testament was probably cassia and it was used in ancient Egypt as an embalming agent along with other spices, including cumin, anise, marjoram and Ceylon cinnamon. This is perhaps the first recorded use of antioxidants – used here to stop the decay of corpses by the inherent antioxidant and antimicrobial actions of the spices. Cassia cinnamon has one of the highest antioxidant values of all the spices – one study found it to have a value (measured by the ORAC assay) twenty times higher than blueberries! When I refer to cinnamon I mean cassia because for me, cassia is cinnamon and is in no way inferior.

Cinnamon

The number of studies on cinnamon has increased significantly over recent years as interest in identifying bioactive components of spices continues to grow. Cinnamon has been of particular interest because of its reported beneficial effects on glycaemic control, in other words its ability to help modulate levels of glucose in the blood and reduce those harmful glucose “spikes”. This is highly significant for people with type II diabetes and for people who may be pre-diabetic, especially due to over-consumption of starchy and sugary foods. There have been several clinical trials involving people with type II diabetes and these have recently been reviewed in the Journal ‘Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism’, with the conclusion that “Use of cinnamon showed a beneficial effect on glycaemic control and the short term (less than four months) effects of the use of cinnamon on glycaemic control looks promising.” However, the studies discussed in the review are controversial because results were mixed. One of the reasons for this comes back to the fact that all cinnamon is not created equal and there was much variation in the type of cinnamon used. There is certainly evidence for further analysis but future studies should perhaps look at characterising their cinnamon at the metabolic level to account for variation in the source of cinnamon used.

Without performing metabolic analysis on cinnamon myself, I’ve found major variations in the organoleptic qualities of cinnamon of the same species from different origins, suggesting different essential oil content. It is the essential oil that contains the phenolic compounds so valued for flavour, scent and medicinal properties and it is clear that this is directly related to factors such as plant variety, growing conditions, age of the plant and environmental conditions. After months of searching, I finally settled on Cinnamonum cassia (Chinese cinnamon) grown in two different countries. Their flavours are completely different, one is rich and creamy, smooth like velvet and the other is sharper and slightly woody. Both work differently in different blends, so I keep them separate, depending on what I want to achieve. The cut of cinnamon is also very important, with cinnamon quills giving a more delicate flavour and the rougher cinnamon bark, known as Dalchini, giving a stronger, more long-lasting flavour and aroma. Of course, with botanicals so highly dependent on environment, like a fine wine, there are subtle differences in flavour of cinnamon and the other spices in ICHAI between batches. It’s something you don’t get with most food and drinks these days but when your ingredients are 100% natural, Mother Nature plays a strong part in the creation of the final product.