A shaker of cinnamon often sits on the spice rack in most of our kitchens.
By DONNA COOK
Given its frequent use in sugary baked goods, many health mavens overlook cinnamon’s centuries-old history as a healing substance, focusing on more exotic herbs rather than a brown powder found in Grandma’s kitchen.
Yet cinnamon, derived from the bark of a tree commonly found in South Asia and the Middle East regions, not only adds flavor to pies, it also delivers a host of health benefits.
The cinnamon plant is a small, evergreen bushy tree belonging to the family of Lauraceae or laurel within the genus Cinnamomum. This novel spice is native to Sri Lankan island but also found in many other countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, China and Indonesia.
Varieties of the cinnamon-tree exist, however, Sri Lankan variety is regarded as “true cinnamon” and scientifically named as Cinnamonum verum .
Traditionally, the inner bark is bruised with a brass rod, peeled and long incisions are made in the bark. It is then rolled by hand and allowed to dry in the sunlight.
It is the bark of the tree from where aromatic essential oil is extracted. Usually, the oil is processed by roughly pounding the bark, macerating it in seawater and then quickly distilling the whole.
The oil features golden-yellow color, with the characteristic odor of cinnamon and a very hot aromatic taste.
Cassia, also known as Chinese cinnamon, is a different member of Lauraceae family and named as Cinnamomum cassia. Cassia is coarser, more spicy and pungent but less fragrant than cinnamon. It is usually substituted for the cinnamon in savory dishes.
The strangest use of cinnamon was as an embalming agent in ancient Egypt.
There are many health benefits in cinnamon:
• The active principles in the cinnamon spice are known to have anti-oxidant, anti-diabetic, anti-septic, local anesthetic, anti-inflammatory, rubefacient (warming and soothing), carminative and anti-flatulent properties.
• Cinnamon has the highest anti-oxidant strength of all the food sources in nature. The spice contains health benefiting essential oils such as eugenol, a phenylpropanoids class of chemical compound, which gives pleasant, sweet aromatic fragrances. Eugenol has got local anesthetic and antiseptic properties, hence it is useful in dental and gum treatment procedures.
• This spicy bark is an excellent source of minerals like potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, zinc, and magnesium. It also contains very good amounts of vitamin A, niacin, pantothenic acid, and pyridoxine.
• There may be a touch of ancient wisdom at work in all the recipes which combine cinnamon with high-carb and high-fat ingredients. Cinnamon can mitigate the impact these foods have on blood sugar levels, slowing the rate at which the stomach empties after meals and thereby reducing the potential spike in blood sugar.
• Cinnamon can offer aid to people who have Type 2 diabetes by preventing insulin resistance and has even been recommended by the American Diabetes Association.
Cinnamon must be stored in a dark location in an airtight container. Whole cinnamon can last for one year. But when it has been ground, cinnamon will begin to lose its flavor after 6 months.
If you take any medicines regularly, talk to your doctor before you start using cinnamon supplements. They could interact with antibiotics, diabetes drugs, blood thinners, heart medicines, and others.
Donna Cook is the owner of Rabbit Creek Gourmet Foods in Louisburg, Kan. She is also a Master Gardener, Master Food Volunteer and on the board of directors of the Home Baking Association.