Smell of the Week: Cinnamon

Now that I have a ticket out of Alaska with an upcoming mid-December departure, I am thinking about holiday baking. In particular, I am thinking about my favorite holiday goodie–mince pies. So, the next few posts will feature the spices that I use in making those little pies of perfection. Today is cinnamon, not a favorite of mine because many bakers are heavy-handed on this fascinating spice but, when used lightly, cinnamon is a wonderful flavour-enhancer. Both sweet and savoury at the same time, I use it  in Mexican and Indian food as well as baking.

Cinnamon comes from the bark of many Cinnamomum trees from SE Asia. Chinese cinnamon or cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticum) is often sold as cinnamon (in the US) but ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) is the true cinnamon. Cassia has a rougher bark (as opposed to the layered bark of true cinnamon–see above left for cinnamon and right for cassia bark). Cassia is often preferred in curries.

The key volatile  in the essential oil is eugenol and in the bark, cinnamaldehyde. Of these, cinnamaldehyde is the odor compound we associate most with cinnamon. Eugenol is the clove-like odor component: eugenol is named after the clove genus, Eugenia. In addition to fragrance, eugenol may be used for antiseptic purposes.

Another compound found in cinnamon (among a few other plants) is coumarin, which is moderately toxic to humans and very toxic to our (primates) close evolutionary relatives, rodents. Coumarin imparts a fresh grassy odor to fragrances. High concentrations of coumarin impart a bitter taste in plants that deter foragers. Interestingly, humans are sensitive to bitter taste, an evolutionary adaptation to avoid plants such as these that may be toxic. In the case of coumarin, the liver and kidneys are affected, but only in high doses.

Not only are there many trees that may produce cinnamon, synthetic versions are be made with powdered beechnut husk laced with cinnamaldehyde. So as we approach the holidays, bakers and chefs beware that you buy the true cinnamon (or cassia depending on your culinary needs) to grind yourself and not a cheap substitute!


Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

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