Cinnamon is produced from the inner bark of a small evergreen tree belonging to the Laurel family with the genus Cinnamomum. Although there are four commercial species of Cinnamomum, the global cinnamon market recognizes the product from only one species as true cinnamon. The product from the other three species, widely sold as cinnamon, is actually cassia.
The four species of Cinnamomum
You can think of these four species as relatives. Technically, only one is true cinnamon. Cassia is a cousin. The other two are second cousins more closely related to cassia than cinnamon. Here’s a list showing how the four species are related and all the names they are commonly known by.
1. True cinnamon – Cinnamomum verum
- Cinnamomum zeylanicum (old Latin name)
- Ceylon cinnamon
- True cinnamon
- Sri Lanka cinnamon
- Mexican cinnamon
- Canela (Spanish for cinnamon)
- Cinnamomum cassia (old Latin name)
- Chinese cinnamon
- Tung Hing
- Indonesian cinnamon
- Padang cassia
- Vietnamese cinnamon
- Saigon cinnamon
The three cassias
About a hundred years ago, American traders started importing cassia because of a rise in the price of Ceylon cinnamon. Ever since, it continues to be the main variety sold in supermarkets here and in Canada. American labeling laws do not require that a distinction be made between cassia and cinnamon in the retail market, so we just know it as cinnamon.
Cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticum)
Even though cassia has long been considered inferior to true cinnamon, North Americans have come to prefer its strong, spicy-sweet flavor. In a taste test, we would probably reject the real, true, Ceylon cinnamon as being too bland. If anything, we crave an even stronger taste. So yes, it’s true that we’ve been misled, but we actually prefer the mislabeled cassia as our cinnamon over the real deal.
The strength of the flavor in cinnamon is due to the amount of essential oil it contains, which is expressed as a percentage between 1 and 5. The actual organic chemical is cinnamaldehyde. The amount of cinnamaldehyde can vary within the percentage of essential oil.
We are most familiar with the taste of Indonesian Korintje cinnamon. The beloved Watkins cinnamon is a high-oil Korintje cassia, which they openly advertise as such. The cinnamon used in those delectable Cinnabons is a high-oil Korintje cassia they have trademarked Makara®. You can buy it at Cinnabon shops. Grade A Korintje cinnamon contains 3% essential oil. Generic grocery store cinnamon is typically grade B and C Korintje, the cheapest and least flavorful of all cassias.
Cassia is native to Southeast Asia (especially southern China and northern Vietnam) and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is grown in many other subtropical regions, but all of it comes from the same three species. Factors such as climate and soil affect the taste and other qualities. Cassia is carefully graded for the global cinnamon trade, but this is rarely accurately labeled for the retail market. Hopefully, these summaries, in addition to the above list of names will help you identify exactly what you are buying.
Indonesian (Korintje) cassia (C. burmannii) has the lowest oil percentage and is the cheapest. The flavor is smooth, with a mild bite. This is our standard, favorite cinnamon taste. You could upgrade the intensity of the flavor with a higher quality version such as Watkins or Makara®. The best Korintje is grade AA.
Chinese (Tung Hing) cassia (C. aromaticum) is grown primarily in the southern provinces of Guangxi, Guangdong, and Yunnan. Cassia is known there as Tung Hing. This cinnamon is stronger than Korintje and has more bite. This would be the best choice for making spicy hot curry blends, Chinese 5 spice, or other recipes that originate in regions of the world where strong cassia is the norm.
Vietnamese (Saigon) cassia (C. loureiroi) has the highest amount of both essential oil and cinnamaldehyde, which makes it the most rich, sweet, spicy, and strong cassia. The highest quality Saigon cassia is so intense that it is recommended that you cut down the amount you use in recipes by half.
The one true cinnamon
Cinnamomum verum is native to the lush, tropical forests of Sri Lanka, a country formerly known as Ceylon. The type of cinnamon produced from this species in Sri Lanka or elsewhere is known in the cinnamon trade as Ceylon cinnamon.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)
Not only is the species of Ceylon cinnamon different than the three cassia species, it is also cultivated and harvested differently. When the tree is two years old, it is drastically pruned. This causes the tree to send out many new twigs. A year after pruning, the young shoots are cut down. The outer bark is stripped off and the inner bark carefully peeled off in one piece. The tubes of bark are very thin and smooth, so they are layered together in several plys. The long rolls are called quills. The dried quills are cut into standard lengths. The cinnamon sticks we buy are short pieces of these long quills.
Ceylon cinnamon has a citrusy fragrance, and its flavor is less sweet, more complex, and mild, without any bite or bitterness. It is recommended for sweet dishes, fruit, sprinkled onto food as a condiment, and in recipes that originate in countries that primarily use Ceylon cinnamon, such as Mexico.
How to distinguish between cinnamon and cassia
Unlike the cultivated small shoots used to produce true Ceylon cinnamon, cassia is harvested from whole branches and small trees, resulting in a much thicker and rougher texture.
You can easily distinguish between cinnamon and cassia in their stick form. True cinnamon sticks are a light tan color and have many thin layers rolled together like a cigar. They are soft and easily ground into fine powder. Cassia sticks are a reddish brown color, usually only one layer, and are extremely hard, producing a rough texture when ground.
The left stick is true Ceylon cinnamon. The right stick is cassia
Indonesian cassia is often sold in quills that are only one thick layer. Chinese and Vietnamese cassias are always sold as broken pieces of thick bark because it is not supple enough to be rolled into even a single-layer quill.
A note about medicinal use of cinnamon
Many people are interested in cinnamon as a nutritional supplement or herbal remedy. For that reason, I felt it worth mentioning that cassia contains up to 5% coumarin, a known anticoagulant (blood thinner) that has been linked to health problems. True Ceylon cinnamon contains only 0.004%, a negligible amount. This is a controversial topic, as many foods naturally contain coumarin. Nevertheless, Germany has banned the importation of cassia because of this concern.