How Cinnamon Works

Cinnamon is a common baking spice, but it's had many other uses throughout history, too. See more pictures of spices.
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No matter where you grew up, chances are you've enjoyed cinnamon in one of its many forms. Cinnamon is commonly sprinkled on hot chocolate or milk, used to stew fruits, added to mulled wine or served on top of apple pie. In some cultures, cinnamon is used to marinade meat dishes or used in the making of yogurt. For a spice so simple, cinnamon has had an intricate history -- and as many uses in other areas of life as it has in the kitchen.

While most of us are familiar with cinnamon in its stick form, the spice is also available as powder, oil and liquid flavoring. Powdered cinnamon has even entered the spotlight in recent years because of a contest known as the cinnamon challenge, in which people attempt to swallow a full tablespoon of cinnamon in under 60 seconds. Because of cinnamon's pungent smell and flavor, combined with the fact that it dries up the mouth -- becoming basically impossible to swallow -- very few people succeed at completing the challenge [source: ABC].

Cinnamon is probably the most common baking spice. It comes from a small evergreen tree that's part of the Lauraceae family. Both the cinnamon tree's flowers and fruits have a distinctive odor [sources: Indian Institute of Spices, Britannica: Cinnamon]. The spice, however, is harvested from the inner bark of the tree.

There are two commercial types of cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon, also known as true cinnamon, is native to South Asia. It is expensive and rare compared to the second kind, which is called cassia tree cinnamon. This variety is the one you'll most likely find on grocery store shelves in the U.S. Although it is cheaper, cassia tree cinnamon has a stronger odor and flavor than Ceylon cinnamon.

Aside from these two types of cinnamon trees used commercially, there are more than one hundred wild types of cinnamon trees in the world. Read on to learn more about where and how people grow and distribute cinnamon.

Harvesting and Production of Cinnamon

Cinnamon trees are cut down to stump size when they're around two years old.
Cinnamon trees are cut down to stump size when they're around two years old.

Sri Lanka produces much of the world's Ceylon cinnamon, even though the tree is also commercially grown in Brazil, the Caribbean and India. A great deal of cassia cinnamon comes from Indonesia, although the tree is also grown in Vietnam, China and Burma [sources: Britannica: Cinnamon, Britannica: Cassia].

When a cinnamon tree is around two years old, cultivators coppice, or cut back, the plant to the size of a stump and cover it with soil. This technique causes it to grow like a bush, with new shoots emerging out of the sides by the following year. It's these shoots that are used to make cinnamon. Once cut, the shoots are stripped of their bark and the peels are set out to dry in the sun. As this happens, the bark naturally curls into quills (sticks) [source: Indian Institute of Spices Research].

Once dried, the quills can be cut into sticks and packaged according to a set of shared qualities. The Sri Lankan grading system, for example, divides the quills into four sizes: Alba, which is 0.2 inches (6 millimeters) or less in diameter; Continental, which is around 0.6 inches (16 millimeters); Mexican, which is nearly 0.8 inches (19 millimeters); and Hamburg, which is about 1.3 inches (32 millimeters) [source: Practicalaction].

Ceylon cinnamon is usually sold in quill form, and it is characterized by a sweet smell and light brown color. It's thin and has a crumbling texture, so it can be ground easily, using a coffee grinder. Cassia cinnamon can be found in a variety of forms, the most common of which is ground cinnamon, but it's generally too hard to grind at home.

In addition to being used for baking, cinnamon flavoring and essential oils often end up in products such as cinnamon supplements and cinnamon-scented bath products, too. To find out more about cinnamon's many uses, read on.

Cooking with Cinnamon

In the West, cinnamon is most often used in sweet dishes and hot drinks, such as tea.
In the West, cinnamon is most often used in sweet dishes and hot drinks, such as tea.
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Cinnamon's most obvious characteristic is its pungent taste and smell. This is due to the presence of cinnamaldehyde, which makes up about 60 percent of cinnamon's bark oil. Cinnamaldehyde is the primary compound in cinnamon essential oil, which is produced by distilling the bark of a cinnamon tree [source: University of Bristol].

People have used cinnamon in cooking for thousands of years. Traditionally, it was used to flavor meat and curry dishes in the East. In the West, it's more typical to find the spice in sweet dishes and desserts, such as cinnamon buns and apple pies, or added to hot drinks such as tea, cocoa or cider. Some people even serve teas or hot chocolate with a cinnamon stick as a replacement for a spoon -- as you stir, the heat of the drink slowly dissolves the quill. Ceylon cinnamon is favored for this type of use, since it is milder and sweeter than the cassia variety.

To preserve cinnamon's freshness and flavor, try storing it in an airtight container. Glass is best, since it's unlikely to interfere with the flavor of the spice. Cinnamon sticks should stay fresh for about a year when stored this way, but ground cinnamon typically loses its strength more quickly.

Studies have shown that the essential oil of cinnamon can make an effective, environmentally friendly pesticide, since it has a proven ability to kill mosquito larvae [source: Gorss]. It may work as a repellent for adult mosquitoes, too, but you should dilute this substance before putting it directly on your body. Pure cinnamon oil might irritate your skin or cause allergic reactions.

Not of all of cinnamon's effects on the body are negative, however. Read on to find out how this spice may improve your health.

Health Benefits of Cinnamon

Cinnamon contains a number of compounds in addition to cinnamaldehyde. Beta-Caryophyllene is responsible for the spiciness of cinnamon, while linalool provides its spicy but flowery scent. Other compounds, such as eugenol, anethole and cinnamyl acetate, also have a direct influence on cinnamon's distinctive smell and flavor. Some of these compounds can be found in only a few other plant species, including clove, hemp and nutmeg.

Cinnamon is also believed to be rich in antioxidants, which fight the free radicals that can damage cells and potentially lead to conditions such as heart disease, cancer and premature aging [source: MedlinePlus]. Additionally, proponents claim that cinnamon also has antimicrobial, antiseptic, antifungal, antibiotic, stimulant and astringent properties [source: Cosmetics and Toiletries]. These properties may make it effective in treating certain infections, and some believe it can even improve cognitive processing [source: Food Navigator].

However, cinnamon also contains a component called coumarin, which can potentially be toxic to the kidneys and liver when consumed in excess. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has warned that daily consumption of more than 0.1 milligram of coumarin per kilogram of body weight can be dangerous. Consuming cinnamon in excess can also cause nausea, vomiting, redness of the face and lip swelling, and burning in the lungs and chest, if inhaled. Coumarin may have anti-clotting properties, too, so people on blood thinner medications should use cinnamon with caution [source: Davidson].

Read on to learn how cinnamon was used by different cultures throughout history.

History and Culture of Cinnamon

Cinnamon became one of the most profitable spices in the spice trade during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Cinnamon became one of the most profitable spices in the spice trade during the 16th and 17th centuries.
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It's difficult to know exactly how long people have known of cinnamon, but there are some early written records of its use. The Christian Bible mentions cinnamon at least a couple of times -- when Moses uses it as part of anointing oil, for example. Some experts say that Egyptians also used the spice for many tasks -- such as embalming -- that may seem unusual, considering its current reputation as a kitchen item. Europeans used it both to add flavor to food and for certain religious rites [sources: Indian Institute of Spices, Britannica: Cinnamon]. Many accounts say that the Emperor Nero added a large amount of cinnamon to the funeral pyre for his wife, Poppaea Sabina, in 65 AD, in order to mask the scent of her body burning [sources: Klein, Osborne]. This was a common technique used at funerals in ancient Rome.

During the Middle Ages, Europeans began to regard cinnamon as a kind of status symbol, the reasoning being that only a very wealthy person could manage to obtain an exotic spice from the East. However, many scholars believe that, bragging rights aside, well-to-do Europeans needed the spice for a very practical reason: They used it to cover up the smell of cured meat, which often spoiled during the winter [source: Osborne]. Even then, however, some people believed that cinnamon had curative powers, too, and used the spice to treat conditions such as indigestion.

Cinnamon, along with spices like clove and nutmeg, eventually played a key role in Europe's expansion into Asia, as well. By the 17th century, cinnamon had become the most profitable spice in the Dutch East India Company trade [source: Britannica: Cinnamon]. Today it may not be as well known for its economic impact, but cinnamon is still a popular, perhaps essential, staple in most contemporary kitchens.

To find out lots more information on cinnamon, follow the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • ABC. "Dangerous Cinnamon Challenge." ABC 33/40 (Affiliate). (Accessed Nov. 17, 2009)
  • Atta-ur-Rahman, M.Iqbal Choudhary, Afgan Farooq, Aftab Ahmed, M. Zafar Iqbal, Betül Demirci, Fatih Demirci and K. Hüsnü Can Baser. Antifungal Activities and Essential Oil Constituents of Some Spices from Pakistan. 1999.
  • BBC News. "In Pictures: Sri Lanka's Spice for Life." (Accessed Nov. 17, 2009)
  • Corn, Charles. The Scents of Eden: A Narrative of the Spice Trade. Kodansha America. 1998.
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  • Khan A, Safdar M, Ali Khan MM, Khattak KN, Anderson RA. "Cinnamon improves glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes". Diabetes Care 26 (12): 3215-8. 2005
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  • MedlinePlus. "Antioxidants." U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. October 14, 2009. (Accessed Nov. 17, 2009)
  • Osborne, Troy David. "A Taste of Paradise: Cinnamon." University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. December 7, 2000. (Accessed Nov. 17, 2009)
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  • Burnham, Paul M. "Cinnamaldehyde." University of Bristol, School of Chemistry.