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Cinnamon: How to Tell the Real from the Cheap

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

There are two main types of cinnamon, those being Ceylon and Cassia. Both provide a number of health benefits for individuals who consume them, and both have a very pleasant and distinctive flavor. They are widely available in most supermarkets in this country, which means everyone has access to them.

People have found some very creative ways of using cinnamon, including in their beverages, baking recipes, and as a terrific topping for almost any food or beverage you might consume. These two varieties of cinnamon are similar in many respects, but one of them actually contains a toxin which could cause problems for you if you ate too much of it. This discussion will enlighten you about how to differentiate between cheap cinnamon and the better quality, or premium cinnamon.

How cinnamon is obtained

Cinnamon is a spice derived from the bark of a tree known as the Cinnamomum. If the inner bark is stripped from this tree, it will dry out and curl up into rolls which are known as cinnamon quills or cinnamon sticks. These sticks can be ground up into a fine powder, or they can be transformed into an extract which can be used in baking recipes. There are a number of essential oils and compounds contained in cinnamon, and these are responsible for its distinctive flavor and aroma, as well as for many of the health benefits it imparts.

Cassia cinnamon

This variety of cinnamon comes from a special species of the Cinnamomum tree called the cassia tree. The tree had its origins in southern China, and for that reason the cinnamon derived from it is known as Chinese cinnamon. After centuries of cultivation and cross-breeding, there are also now a number of subspecies which are widely cultivated in southern Asia as well as Eastern Asia.

Cassia cinnamon can be identified by its dark brown-red color and its thicker cinnamon sticks. It will also have a rougher texture than Ceylon cinnamon sticks will. Of the two varieties, Cassia cinnamon is considered to be the lower quality version of the spice, whereas Ceylon cinnamon is known around the world as premium cinnamon.

Cassia cinnamon enjoys a much more widespread popularity than does Ceylon cinnamon, even in the US, where virtually all supermarkets offer the Cassia variety of cinnamon. Approximately 95% of Cassia cinnamon's oil is cinnamaldehyde, which is responsible for the spicy and powerful flavor of Cassia cinnamon.

Ceylon cinnamon

This variety of cinnamon is sometimes referred to as true cinnamon, and it is grown natively in the southern part of India, Sri Lanka as well as Madagascar. Unlike Cassia cinnamon, it is harvested from the interior bark of the Cinnamomum verum tree. It is recognizable by its tan-brown color and the soft layers of its cinnamon sticks. Gourmets consider Ceylon cinnamon to have the most desirable texture and quality of any available variety.

This type of cinnamon is far less commonplace than Cassia cinnamon, and it is considered highly desirable for use as a cooking spice. Compared to its cousin, Ceylon cinnamon is far more expensive, as well as more difficult to obtain. It's often used in desserts, because it has a delicate and slightly sweet flavor which makes it ideal for confections. Only between 50% and 60% of its essential oil is cinnamaldehyde, which of course is much lower than the content of Cassia cinnamon. That's why it has a considerably milder flavor and aroma.

Health properties of cinnamon

As previously mentioned, both these varieties of cinnamon impart significant health benefits to consumers. It has been found to help control blood sugar, which is important for diabetics. Studies have shown that when Ceylon cinnamon powder is used as a supplement in the diet, blood sugar has been much more manageable and healthy for study participants. Research conducted in laboratories with animal subjects also shows that Ceylon can control spikes of blood sugar, increase insulin sensitivity, and help with metabolic markers that are related to insulin resistance.

While studies have seldom been conducted on humans, the results shown in laboratories are very promising, and should produce the same kind of results in people. A number of other studies have been conducted using Cassia cinnamon, and these have also shown significant reductions of blood sugar after several months of use. Simply by taking between one and 6 g of Cassia cinnamon each day, volunteers consistently showed lower levels of blood sugar within a few months.

Another significant health benefit associated with cinnamon consumption is that it may reduce the likelihood of someone developing Alzheimer's disease. There are a number of bioactive compounds in cinnamon which seem to have the capability of blocking a protein called tau from building up inside the brain. This is extremely important because one of the main characteristics of Alzheimer's disease is this buildup of tau in the brain. Both Cassia cinnamon and Ceylon cinnamon have this capability, so either one may provide some hope of prevention against Alzheimer's.

Which is healthier?

It has been very difficult to determine which of the two varieties of cinnamon contains more potent health properties, even though their essential oil ratios are definitely different. Published studies have not really tried to determine which of the two is healthier, so it's not really possible at this point to say which of the two cinnamon varieties is healthier than the other. What can be said however, is that Ceylon cinnamon has far less potential to cause harm when consumed on a regular basis.

Cassia cinnamon contains an element called Coumarin, and if consumed in sufficient quantities over an extended period of time, this can be toxic and can cause a number of problems for the consumer. Coumarin has been shown to cause lung, liver, and kidney damage in rodents during laboratory tests, and it may also be responsible for triggering cancer.

Cassia cinnamon has about 1% of its total composition as Coumarin, while Ceylon cinnamon contains only .004%, which is 250 times less than Cassia cinnamon. In practical terms, one or 2 teaspoons a day of Cassia cinnamon could quickly take you over the limit, and potentially cause major bodily damage. For this reason, you would be well advised to stick to Ceylon cinnamon if you are seeking any kind of health advantage.


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