Much of the cinnamon available in the spice aisle of your grocery store isn't cinnamon at all, but cassia. Ceylon cinnamon (cinnamomum verum) is true cinnamon, and it comes from the inner bark of a Sri Lankan evergreen tree. Ceylon cinnamon may have some different health effects than cassia.
Cassia Versus Ceylon Cinnamon
Both cassia and Ceylon cinnamon have a similar flavor and color, although Ceylon cinnamon tends to be lighter in color and milder in flavor with a more delicate scent. Cassia comes from the inner bark of an evergreen tree, as well, called Cinnamomum cassia. The tree is native to East Asia. Many people buy cassia instead of Ceylon cinnamon because cassia is much less expensive. Because of this, commercial baked goods typically contain cassia instead of Ceylon cinnamon.
Health Benefits for Both
Both Ceylon cinnamon and cassia have numerous health benefits, including:
- Helps control blood sugar
- Serves as an anti-bacterial agent
- Improves blood lipid profiles
- Serves as an anti-inflammatory
- Can help thin blood
- Protects against various forms of cardiovascular and coronary artery disease
Along with these benefits, both types of cinnamon can also help people on low-sugar diets, because it sweetens food naturally without the need for sugar. Because Ceylon cinnamon is sweeter in flavor than cassia, it serves as a wonderful sweetening agent in foods and smoothies that may help you require less sugar to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Key Difference: Coumarin
With such fantastic health benefits, it may seem like either type of cinnamon will perform equally well. However, one of the main differences, health-wise, between cassia and Ceylon cinnamon is the presence of a compound called coumarin. Cassia contains coumarin, a compound that has been linked to liver damage according to Medical News Today. In fact, cassia cinnamon powder has as much as 63 times more coumarin than Ceylon cinnamon. Cassia cinnamon sticks have about 18 times more coumarin than those made with Ceylon cinnamon.
An article in the February, 2010 issue of Molecular Nutrition and Food Research notes cassia to be both hepatotoxic (damaging the liver) and carcinogenic (cancer-causing). The article noted that in a survey, heavy consumption of baked goods containing cassia were likely to exceed safe amounts of this substance. However, Ceylon cinnamon is very low in coumarin (less than 1/100 of a percent), so intake of foods made with Ceylon cinnamon were unlikely to be toxic.
Mother Nature Network notes that, because of this, Germany has placed a safe upper limit on daily consumption of cassia - 0.7 ounces (2 grams) per day or less for an adult weighing 132 pounds. There is currently no established upper limit for consumption of Ceylon cinnamon.
Studies Specific to Ceylon Cinnamon
Because of the potential for toxicity related to coumarin, Ceylon cinnamon has the health edge when it comes to the above listed benefits. Because it is more affordable - and more readily available - cassia has been studied much more than Ceylon cinnamon. However, some small-scale and animal studies have shown potential benefits specific to Ceylon cinnamon.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease showed that an extract of Ceylon cinnamon inhibited two hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease, tau aggregation and filament foundation. However, this was an in vitro study (in the test tube - and not on living humans). No human studies have shown benefits for dementia or Alzheimer's disease at this time. Further research is required.
An animal study published in the April-June 2012 issue of Pharmacognosy Research showed Ceylon cinnamon lowered blood glucose levels, decreased food intake, and improved blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) in rats with diabetes. This is consistent with findings of an earlier study that looked at cinnamon in general, but not Ceylon cinnamon in isolation.
Other Studied Health Effects
In 2013, BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine performed a systematic review of studies performed only on Ceylon cinnamon, examining potential health benefits. While the majority of the studies were in vitro, animal studies, or limited studies, the review concluded Ceylon cinnamon may have the following health benefits:
- It may be anti-parisitic and anti-microbial
- It may improve blood lipid profiles
- It is an antioxidant
- It may inhibit the breakdown of bones (osteoclastogenesis)
- It may improve gastric ulcers
- It may inhibit two hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease
- It may inhibit nerve pain and inflammation
- It may speed wound healing
- It may protect the liver
It is important to note, however, that controlled clinical human studies are lacking in these areas, and more research is necessary to confirm the benefits of Ceylon cinnamon.
Telling the Difference
The best way to tell the difference is by reading labels. Look for cinnamon labeled Ceylon cinnamon or Sri Lankan cinnamon. If it doesn't have that label, chances are it is cassia. For cinnamon sticks, look for tightly coiled, thin layers of bark, which is indicative of Ceylon cinnamon. Cassia is thicker with fewer coils throughout, and tends to be more loosely wound.
The Bottom Line
Research suggests cinnamon has many health benefits. However, much of the research has been conducted on cassia instead of Ceylon cinnamon, or it doesn't specify which type of cinnamon was used. However, many experts feel with the potential hepatotoxic (liver damaging) and carcinogenic effects of coumarin, which is found in high concentrations in cassia, you are better off seeking those health benefits from Ceylon cinnamon.