Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cinnamon: Barking Up the Right Tree

 Cinnamon, the aromatic powder used to spice up rolls and cookies, is actually the ground bark of a laurel tree, Cinnamomum zeylanicum.  Today, however, much of the cinnamon found in the stores comes from another tree in the same family: Cinnamomum cassia. Although the average person may not be able to detect the difference, cinnamon from the C. zeylanicum tree is thought to be superior; it has a light, sweet flavor and is easier to grind into powder. Cinnamon trees can yield productive bark for about 45 years, and if given the chance, can grow to 65 feet.
Native to Sri Lanka, cinnamon is also cultivated in India, Sumatra, Java, Brazil, Vietnam, the West Indies, Egypt, Zanzibar, and Madagascar.

The process of creating the cinnamon spice is not an easy task. Trees are grown for two years and then cut down. The following year, the new shoots that appear are stripped of their bark; the bark is layered and rolled to form long canes (called quills) that are sun-dried. Cinnamon quills can be stored for long periods of time - hundreds of years in the right conditions. Ground cinnamon, however, will lose its flavor in a much shorter period of time. The flakes left over from quills are ground into cinnamon powder or distilled into cinnamon oil.

Recent studies show health benefits of this spice to include controlling blood sugar, improving colon and heart health and boosting brain power. Moreover cinnamon is considered a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. These benefits are attributed to 3 main essential oils - cinnamyl alcohol, cinnamyl acetate, and cinnamaldehyde.

Another health benefit is the role of cinnamon in improving the insulin response of those with type 2 diabetes. Cinnamon may even help lower cholesterol levels. One study showed that simply smelling cinnamon or chewing cinnamon flavored gum, can improve one’s attention span and memory.