Cinnamon may well be autumn’s quintessential spice. Where would pumpkin and apple pie be without it?! Or your favorite chai on these chilly evenings?
Culinary Spice Extraordinaire
Although the Western world tends to reach for cinnamon as part of dessert, this versatile spice is capable of so much more.
Native to Asia, the bark of the Cinnamomum evergreen tree has been used for centuries in Asian and African cuisines.
Cinnamon is harvested during the rainy season when the bark is more pliable; the bark is then rolled into the familiar sticks. The word “cinnamon” derives from Greek kinnamōmon, which itself came from the Hebrew qinnāmōn.
From the Middle Bronze Age
Gløgg, glüwein, mulled wine anyone? Cinnamon is an essential ingredient, but these beverages are actually latecomers to the mulled wine world.
Much earlier, ancient Egyptians were imbibing spiced medicinal wine, and in 1700 BC, revelers in a Canaanite palace were quaffing red and white wine that contained honey, mint, juniper berries—and cinnamon.
To the Middle Ages
Cinnamon eventually reached Europe, signaling wealth and prestige during the Middle Ages. It was used in baked goods, beverages, and meat-based dishes—and the more extravagant the use, the higher your social status.
The 1475 wedding of George, Duke of Bavaria, and Jadwiga of Poland required a staggering
386 pounds of pepper, 286 pounds of ginger, 257 pounds of saffron, 205 pounds of cinnamon, pounds of cloves, and 85 pounds of nutmeg (Freedman 2003).
Incidentally, cinnamon may have masked the taste of meat spoiling, with meat being another of those upper-class perks.
To Today—A Spice for Health?
This aromatic spice has been used medicinally for millennia, and today we know that cinnamon indeed has many health benefits.
The caveat is that much more research needs to be done. Like tea, the properties of cinnamon depend upon many factors such as where and how it is grown, the concentration used in the study, and the cinnamon variety.
Cassia cinnamon is the variety most likely to be found in our kitchens because it is more flavorful and less expensive, but Ceylon cinnamon seems to offer more health benefits. In high doses, cassia cinnamon is actually toxic.
Even with all the ambiguity, research does suggest that cinnamon may improve the function of insulin.
Like tea, cinnamon has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. In fact, when heated, its antibacterial benefits evidently increase.
Recent studies suggest that cinnamon also helps protect against cognitive problems, including Alzheimer’s disease.
So what’s not to like about cinnamon? Especially when blended with tea!
–Flavours and Fragrances of Plant Origin, FAO–Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy. 1995.
–Freedman, P. “Spices: how the search for flavors influenced our world,” YaleGlobal Online. 2003.
–LaMotte, S. “Cinnamon: Pantry staple—and medical powerhouse?” CNN. August 29, 2017.
–Seema, J. et al. “Effect of Cinnamomum zeylanicum extract on scopolamine-induced cognitive impairment and oxidative stress in rats,” Nutritional Neuroscience 18(5). 2015.
–”Spice pages,” Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages. http://gernot-katzers-spice-pages.com.
–Wilford, J. N. “Wine cellar, well aged, is revealed in Israel,” The New York Times. November 23, 2013.