For thousands of years, cinnamon has been used in recipes across many cultures and continents. Even today, we are fond of cinnamon-flavoured bread and rolls, biscuits, and desserts in Western cuisine and chutneys, rice, and meat dishes garnished with it in Indian cooking.
Cinnamon is a functional superfood with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. To a varying degree, it has been found to be protective against various medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, infections, gum disease, fragile bones, fatty liver, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Disclaimer: Irrespective of what Hippocrates said, food is not medicine; the two serve different purposes. Do not consume any food item in lieu of your medications. Use the information in this article to learn about the benefits, read more from the reference links, and have a healthy discussion with your doctor. Only after her consent can you incorporate that food into your diet; don’t do it on your own.
But there is a serious problem with cinnamon, or rather, the cinnamon that most people buy. Excess consumption of that inferior cinnamon can cause internal bleeding, cancers, and liver or kidney damage.
This article will tell you everything about that potential danger.
Different Types of Cinnamon
There are five types of cinnamon available commercially in the market:
- Ceylon cinnamon: Sri Lankan origin. It is mildly sweet and light reddish-brown in colour. Expensive.
- Chinese cinnamon: Chinese origin; also called Chinese cassia. Spicy, bitter, and dark reddish-brown. Cheap.
- Saigon cinnamon: Vietnamese origin; known as Vietnamese cassia. Spicy, sweet, and dark reddish-brown. Somewhat cheap.
- Indonesian cinnamon or Korintje cinnamon: Indonesian origin; also called Padang cassia. Spicy and dark reddish-brown. Cheap.
- Malabar cinnamon: South Indian origin. Has a strong lemongrass smell and is rare.
Ceylon cinnamon is called the ‘true cinnamon’. The other varieties are so inferior to it that some people refer to them as just ‘cassia’—they are not even considered cinnamon.
In Hindi (India), ceylon cinnamon is called ‘Dalchini’ and cassia varieties are called ‘Tej’.
If you are buying cinnamon in the USA and Canada, you are getting the cassia varieties. This article is definitely for you—read on.
Most packings do not mention the cinnamon type on the ingredients label. They simply call it ‘cinnamon’. If it is not mentioned, you can safely assume that it is the inferior cassia cinnamon.
To stop this incorrect labelling, many regulatory bodies around the world have started to act. For example, the Indian Food Authority (F.S.S.A.I.) says that cassia is a different food item from cinnamon. If cassia is used in a food, the ingredients should say ‘cassia’, and not ‘cinnamon’.
When Cassia Cinnamon is Preferred
- Cinnamon’s aroma and flavour come mainly from its tangy, oily compound—cinnamaldehyde.
- The oils derived from cassia have ninety-five per cent cinnamaldehyde, while those taken from the ceylon variety have only about sixty per cent. The cassia variety is strong and peppery, while the ceylon one is sweetish. For industrial production, cassia gives the cinnamon flavour much better.
- Cassia is nearly ten times cheaper than the ceylon variety, making perfect economic sense.
- Ceylon cinnamon is usually reserved for nuanced flavours, such as desserts.
Using a little bit of cassia cinnamons for food flavouring is fine but consuming them in higher amounts is unsafe. Here is why.
When Ceylon Cinnamon is Preferred
All cinnamons have a toxic compound called coumarin. Cassia cinnamons have nearly a hundred times coumarin—bordering on dangerous levels—than the ceylon variety.
Coumarin prevents the formation of vitamin K reducing blood clotting. It is used in making some medicines that prevent blood clots. You have surely heard of one: Warfarin.
- Consuming too much cassia cinnamon can increase the risk of excessive bleeding.
- High blood concentrations of coumarin are also known to cause cancers and damage the liver and kidneys.
- In severe cases, coumarin can cause liver inflammation leading to symptoms of jaundice.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has advised a maximum tolerable daily intake (TDI) of 0.1 mg of coumarin per kilogram of your body weight. So, a sixty-kilogram person should consume at most 6 mg of coumarin daily on a regular basis. EFSA has also said that consuming thrice this amount—18 mg/day—is fine for a week or two but not longer.
Let’s calculate how much coumarin cassia and ceylon cinnamons give us.
Coumarin in Ceylon Cinnamon
Ceylon cinnamon has up to 0.09 mg of coumarin per gram of it.
So a 60 kg person should not consume more than 67 grams of ceylon cinnamon a day on a regular basis and up to 200 grams of it are okay for 1–2 weeks.
Of course, no one will consume that much cinnamon: In general, people consume 1–2 grams of cinnamon through food or 2–6 grams of cinnamon for medicinal benefits.
Coumarin in Cassia Cinnamon
Cassia cinnamon has between 2.5 and 10 mg of coumarin per gram of it. That is nearly a hundred times more than in ceylon cinnamon.
For the worst-case scenario, taking 10 mg/gm as the number, you should consume less than 0.6 grams of cassia cinnamon daily, and 1.8 grams of it a day once in a while for up to 1–2 weeks.
The Risk In Consuming Cassia Cinnamon
Since cassia cinnamon is cheap and widely available, you may end up consuming more than the safe levels on a daily basis. This is especially risky if you are already taking blood-thinner medicines because cinnamon may increase the action of your medication leading to excessive bleeding.
Typically, cinnamon biscuits and bread rolls use 1–2% cinnamon in the dough. So 1 kg of cinnamon bread or biscuits may have up to 20 grams of cassia cinnamon, giving 200 mg of coumarin.
Testing of commercially available cinnamon cookies shows between 20 and 80 mg of coumarin per kilogram of the biscuits. Compare these with the safe levels of 6 mg of coumarin a day: 75 grams of cookies will have enough coumarin to breach the daily safe levels. Hopefully, no one eats cinnamon biscuits every day.
Our Genius Scientists
Most medicinal research on cinnamon uses two to six grams of it a day.
Unfortunately, many scientific papers mention that they use the cassia variety in their studies. It is hard to understand why those researchers do not do their toxicity homework before conducting such tests! Shouldn’t they use ceylon cinnamon in the trials if they want to try such high doses? Is cost the deciding factor? Then what about participants’ safety?
It is beyond me how the ethics committees of those respective institutions allow such unsafe doses without considering coumarin dangers.
North American Versus European Regulators
Confession: I have read and re-read the reports by the USA and Canadian authorities and fail to understand how they find coumarin contents of all the common cinnamon-based food items, including different cinnamons, a thousand times less than what the Europeans have found. If you can solve this mystery for me, I would really grateful.
Read this article from the Government of Canada: Coumarin in Cinnamon, Cinnamon-Containing Foods and Licorice Flavoured Foods. Normally, Saigon or Vietnamese cinnamon has 5 mg of coumarin per gram—a significant amount.
The report admits to finding high levels of coumarin in Saigon cinnamon they tested and reports the number as 5000 ppb (parts per billion). In my opinion, five milligrams per gram should be 5000 ppm (parts per million) and not ppb. Why are the Canadian authorities measuring coumarin a thousand times less?
Similarly, coumarin in every single food item in the report is less by a factor of a thousand. And the report goes on to conclude that with such low levels of coumarin, all cinnamon-containing foods are safe. Is this the reason why all North American regulators find cassia cinnamon-based foods safe and the European authorities don’t?
What am I missing? Let me know in the comments below and I will be happy to correct this article.
How To Distinguish Between Cassia and Ceylon Cinnamons
- Ceylon cinnamon sticks are lighter brown with thin, papery, crumply layers. Cassia cinnamon sticks are reddish and dark brown. They have thick and hard rolled bark layers. In the stick forms, the two are easy to distinguish.
- In powdered form, an untrained eye can’t tell whether it is cassia or ceylon cinnamon.
Most of the information in this article is taken from my upcoming book to be published by Macmillan Publishers in Nov 2023. The book discusses a thousand such preventive health tidbits. It covers twenty superfoods, their nutrients, health benefits, recommended amounts and excess levels. It also explains how to select and store and who should avoid them. Some of the superfoods are tomatoes, coconut, capsicum (Shimla mirch), drumsticks, amla (Indian gooseberry), jamun (Java plum), turmeric, cinnamon, flax seeds, asafoetida (hing), and sabja (sweet basil seeds).
- Do not exceed 0.6 grams of cassia cinnamon or 67 grams (!) of ceylon cinnamon on a daily basis.
- One teaspoon of cinnamon weighs about 2.6 grams.
- If you are buying cinnamon from a supermarket, most likely it is of the cassia variety.
- If you are on a blood-thinning medicine, be extremely careful in consuming cassia, as the two together can cause excess bleeding. My suggestion would be to avoid cassia altogether and opt for ceylon cinnamon.
- Check the product ingredients printed on the label. If it mentions only cinnamon and not its type, you can safely assume it is the cassia variety. A supplier using ceylon cinnamon will proudly say so on the package.
To Read More
- FSSAI, Indian Govt.: FSSAI Guidance note on Cinnamon and Cassia
- Sri Lanka Export Development Board: Ceylon Cinnamon vs. Cassia Cinnamon
- German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment: FAQ on coumarin in cinnamon and other foods
- Foods Journal: Coumarins in Food and Methods of Their Determination
- On this Website: Cinnamon in blood sugar control
- K-Agriculture: 3 Misconceptions About Cinnamon Sticks In India
- On this Website: Cinnamon in blood sugar control
First Published on: 14th July 2023
Image Credit: KamranAydinov on Freepik