by Kristen Rezabek, MS, RD, CD; MG Class of 2013
Cinnamon is an ancient spice that at one time was worth more in weight than gold. Early records date its use to 2800 BC. Many cultures highly value cinnamon not only for its aromatic and culinary properties, but also for medicinal purposes. In recent times we have discovered some unique health characteristics to cinnamon that may help control high blood sugar in diabetes.
The name cinnamon is derived from the Hebrew and Arabic term “amomon,” which translates to “fragrant spice plant.” Cinnamon originates from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). For over a thousand years Arab traders held a monopoly on the spice trade and cinnamon was a closely guarded secret. One recorded value for cinnamon was that it was worth 15 times that of silver. The Roman Emperor Nero was said to have burned a year’s supply of cinnamon on his wife’s funeral pyre (perhaps in guilt for murdering her?). Egyptians also used cinnamon in the embalming process for making mummies. The Greeks used cinnamon to help indigestion and also as a mouth wash. Europeans were introduced to cinnamon during the crusades. Colombus even brought back something from the New World resembling cinnamon as proof he had found India (this later turned out to be allspice). Many nations including the Portugese, Dutch, French and English vied for control of this lucrative crop. However by the mid 1800’s cinnamon was no longer a monopoly and many tropical regions were discovered where it would grow, including Java, Sumatra, Borneo, South America, and the West Indies.
Cinnamon is an evergreen tree from the laurel family. However much of the cinnamon we see on the shelf is not true cinnamon, but actually a relative known as cassia. Cassia differs from cinnamon in that it has a stronger flavor, often preferred for savory dishes. Cinnamon and cassia come from the bark of the tree. Every three years, the bark is peeled during the rainy season. After drying for 24 hours, the outer layer is scraped off and the inner layer curls as it dries into quills.
The common forms we see today are the quills or cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon. In some cultures the flowers and leaves of the cinnamon tree are also used. One way to differentiate if you are buying true cinnamon is to examine the quill, if it curls in like a telescope it is true cinnamon, however it both ends curl up like a scroll it is cassia. In the powdered form true cinnamon is tan in color and has a finer texture, cassia is reddish brown and coarser. True cinnamon is preferred for dessert dishes as it has a warm, sweet flavor. Store both forms in an airtight container, in a cool dark place.
Cinnamon is very popular in all manner of baked goods from cakes, cookies, and breads (the cinnamon roll). It also used commonly in puddings, chocolate, and fruit desserts (cinnamon compliments pear and apple well). Middle Eastern and North African cuisines also feature cinnamon in savory fare such as lamb and eggplant dishes, curries, pilafs, as well as an ingredient in garam masala.
Health properties of cinnamon are linked to its carminative properties (it breaks up intestinal gas) and home remedies often use cinnamon to treat nausea and flatulence. The essential oils of cinnamon contain potent antibacterial and antifungal properties. Much interest has focused on cinnamon in relation to diabetes and high blood pressure. One study found as little as 1 gram a day of cinnamon (one-fourth of a teaspoon twice a day) can lower blood sugar by an average of 18 to 29 percent, triglycerides (fatty acids in the blood) by 23 to 30 percent, LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol by 7 to 27 percent and total cholesterol by 12 percent to 26 percent. Cinnamon seems to improve the action of insulin so it works more efficiently in the body. A note of caution – too much cinnamon has the potential to be toxic, so use in small amounts. And of course this doesn’t give a green light to eating high fat, high sugar baked goods with cinnamon.
While there is no definitive evidence that eating cinnamon will improve your health it certainly enhances the appeal of adding cinnamon to a variety of dishes. Cinnamon as a spice has a wide variety of uses from spicing up your morning bowl of oatmeal to making a flavorful addition to a meat marinade or spicy lentil dish. It’s easy to add cinnamon to the diet, sprinkle a bit of powder on cereal, fruit, and coffee or soak a cinnamon stick in a cup of tea. Just the smell of cinnamon makes you feel good and how much better is it when the scent is accompanied by a warm apple crisp — or a mug of Mexican style hot chocolate:
Mexican Hot Chocolate
Preparation time: 2 minutes
¾ cup low fat or nonfat milk or soymilk
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa
2 tablespoon sugar or artificial sweetener
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
dash of cinnamon
Directions: Heat milk and water in a small saucepan. Add cocoa, sugar, and vanilla; stir until smooth. Sprinkle with cinnamon and serve hot.
Here’s a printable version: Mexican Hot Chocolate
And if you need a little more hot cinnamon in your life, here’s a traditional method for preparing Churros
Images of Arab Manuscript and Cinnamomum verum from WikiMedia Commons.