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Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum, synonym C. verum) is a small evergreen tree 10-15 m tall, belonging to the family Lauraceae, native to Sri Lanka. The leaves are ovate-oblong in shape, 7-18 cm long. The flowers, which are arranged in panicles, have a greenish colour and a rather disagreeable odour. The fruit is a purple 1 cm berry containing a single seed.
Cinnamon is harvested by growing the tree for two years and then coppicing it. The next year a dozen or so shoots will form from the roots. These shoots are then stripped of their bark and left to dry. Only the thin (0.5 mm) inner bark is used; the outer woody portion is removed, leaving metre long cinnamon strips which curl into rolls ("quills") on drying; each dried quill comprises strips from numerous shoots packed together. These quills are then cut to 5-10 cm long pieces for sale.
The best cinnamon comes from Sri Lanka, but the tree is also grown commercially at Tellicherry in Java, Sumatra, the West Indies, Brazil, Vietnam, Madagascar, and Egypt. Sri Lanka cinnamon of fine quality is a very thin smooth bark, with a light-yellowish brown colour, a highly fragrant odour, and a peculiarly sweet, warm and pleasing aromatic taste.
Cinnamon bark is widely used as a spice. It is principally employed in cookery as a condiment and flavouring material, being largely used in the preparation of some kinds of desserts, chocolate and spicy candies and liqueurs. In the Middle East, it is often used in savory dishes of chicken and lamb. In America, cinnamon and sugar are often used to flavor cereals and fruits, especially apples. It can also be used in pickling. In medicine it acts like other volatile oils and once had a reputation as a "cure" for colds.
Studies by the United States Department of Agriculture have found that using half a teaspoon of cinnamon a day significantly reduces blood sugar in diabetics, especially in Type-2 diabetics, and improves cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol and triglyceride levels. The effects, which can even be produced by soaking cinnamon in tea, also benefit non-diabetics who have blood sugar problems. There is also much anecdotal evidence that consumption of cinnamon has a strong effect in lowering blood pressure, making it potentially useful to those suffering from hypertension. The USDA has three ongoing studies that are monitoring the blood pressure effect.
There is concern that there is as yet no knowledge about the potential for toxic buildup of the fat-soluble components in cinnamon (anything fat-soluble could potentially be subject to toxic buildup); however, people have been using the spice as a seasoning safely for thousands of years. There are no concluded long term clinical studies on the use of cinnamon for health reasons.
The name cinnamon is correctly used to refer to "Ceylon cinnamon" (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), also known as "true cinnamon" (from the botanical synonym C. verum). However, the related species cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticum) is sometimes sold labeled as cinnamon, distinguished from true cinammon as "Indonesian cinnamon" or "Bastard cinnamon". Ceylon cinnamon, using only the thin inner bark, has a finer, less dense and more crumbly texture, and is considered to be a stronger and more pungent spice. Cassia is generally a medium to dark reddish brown, and as the whole bark is used, is thicker (2-3 mm thick) and hard and woody in texture.
The two barks when whole are easily distinguished, and their microscopic characteristics are also quite distinct. When powdered bark is treated with tincture of iodine (a test for starch), little effect is visible in the case of pure cinnamon of good quality, but when cassia is present a deep-blue tint is produced, the intensity of the coloration depending on the proportion of cassia.
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