Is Your Cinnamon Safe to Eat?: "True" cinnamon
Who doesn't love cinnamon? I use it daily on my oatmeal sprinkled over some Granny Smith apples or just mixed with some maple syrup. It provides a rich and full flavor to any dish, so it's no surprise it's the second most popular spice (next to black pepper).
The problem is that most people don't know that there are actually HUNDREDS OF different types of cinnamon.
Only 4 types or varieties of cinnamon are actually used for commercial purposes:
Cinnamomum zeylanicum (Ceylon cinnamon; Cinnamomum verum; True cinnamon), Cinnamomum cassia (Cassia cinnamon; Chinese cinnamon; Cinnamomum aromaticum), Saigon cinnamon (Vietnamese Cassia; Cinnamomum Loureiroi; Vietnamese Cinnamon), and Korintje cinnamon (Cinnamomum burmanni; Indonesian cinnamon; Padang cassia).
With the exception of Ceylon cinnamon, Cassia, Saigon and Korintje cinnamon are all classified under the "Cassia" category because they are all very similar to each other with only slight variations. Cassia cinnamon is the most common cinnamon sold in the United States, the United Kingdom, and India. To a lesser extent, Saigon cinnamon is sometimes sold as an "organic" and "healthy" option. People tend to buy it because it's mostly found as organic, and it's more expensive so people automatically assume it is "better". Most of Europe uses Ceylon cinnamon, however, and even traditional Mexican dishes that contain cinnamon were first developed with Ceylon.
So what's the problem - there are several different types of sugars, and they all function the same once they're in the body (although some, like coconut sugar, have added nutritional benefits) - what's the issue with cinnamon types?
I'm glad you asked!
There are many differences, similar to those in different types of sugar - regarding texture, taste, colour, aroma, etc. But those differences don't matter so much when it comes to the difference in coumarin content.
What is coumarin and why is it bad To have too much?
Coumarin is a fragrant organic chemical found in many plants. When it occurs in high concentrations in plants, coumarin is a somewhat bitter-tasting appetite suppressant, and is presumed to be produced by plants as a defense chemical to discourage predation.
Preliminary animal studies initially raised concerns about the hepatotoxicity of coumarin, causing it to be banned as a flavorant food additive, but recent human studies have also raised concerns for human consumption of certain types of cinnamon, which can also be high in coumarin. Coumarin has been deemed a secondary phytochemical with hepatotoxic and carcinogenic properties, known to cause liver and kidney damage in rats, mice and probably humans.
Yes, you read that right - coumarin is considered moderately toxic to the liver and kidneys, with a median lethal dose (LD50) of 275 mg/kg (keep in mind that this is still a low toxicity compared to other compounds).
Coumarin as an additive or as a constituent of tonka beans or tonka extracts is banned from food in the United States due to its potentially adverse side effects.
European health agencies have even warned against consuming high amounts of cassia cinnamon because of its coumarin content (1)(2); according to the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BFR), 1 kg of cassia cinnamon powder contains about 2.1 to 4.4g of coumarin. Powdered cassia cinnamon weighs 0.56 g/cm3, so a kilogram of cassia cinnamon powder equals 362.29 teaspoons. One teaspoon of cassia cinnamon powder therefore contains 5.8 to 12.1mg of coumarin, which may be above the tolerable daily intake value for smaller individuals. Using the human data, a tolerable daily intake (TDI) of 0.1 mg/kg body weight was derived.
The same BFR report specifically states that Ceylon cinnamon contains "hardly any" coumarin, thankfully.
Do I really eat enough cinnamon to worry about this?
Nutritional exposure may be more than you think. This is mainly due to use of cassia cinnamon, which is a popular spice especially, used for cookies and sweet dishes. We tend to be especially exposed to coumarin around the Christmas season when cinnamon is in everything. If you're consuming cinnamon capsules daily and the cinnamon is not Ceylon cinnamon, it's safe to say you're probably over the TDI.
Maybe you're thinking OK, well I don't really consume that much cinnamon - keeping in mind that only a teaspoon can be above the TDI. Consider this: cinnamon is often used in breakfast cereals, instant oatmeals, nutritional bars, nutrition shakes, teas, pastries, breads - and even in artificial vanilla extracts! Are you sure you're not consuming high amounts? Maybe check the labels of some processed foods in your house.
The bottom line
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the United States does not classify coumarin as a carcinogen for humans, and short-term high dosages does not appear to cause adverse effects. Regardless, for long-term exposure (say you eat it on your oatmeal every day, plus in apple pies and oatmeal cookies) then it's best to opt for the true cinnamon with low coumarin content.
If you are taking cinnamon for health reasons, such as in capsule form, then you must and should switch to Ceylon cinnamon - this may require you to buy your own veggie capsules, and buy your cinnamon separately. If you're looking for some high quality Ceylon cinnamon for a decent price, try this brand for Canadians, and this brand for Americans, or this brand from iHerb (ships internationally, to Canada and the U.S. as well).
At the end of the day, I would rather be safe than sorry. The risk may not be exceptionally high, but it's high enough to be on my radar and if I can avoid the added risk by simply buying a different cinnamon, why wouldn't I? Then I can consume all the cinnamon-y noms I want!
And if you aren't consuming any cinnamon in your diet - you really should be! The health benefits are worth it I pwomise. If you don't believe me, stay tuned for my next blog post!