Why Cinnamon Has Been A Favorite Spice For 1000s Of Years

Cinnamon is the classic spice next to pepper. It’s almost inexplicable why we love cinnamon so much. That taste and aroma have transfixed humans for eons. The history of cinnamon use by humans goes back millennia. It was first used by the ancient Egyptians for embalming their royalty, and was considered a precious gift from the gods – the choice of kings and emperors. Arab traders took cinnamon to Europe, but it was considered so valuable that they kept the origins of their cinnamon a secret. Cinnamon's high value made it expensive, and it was highly prized in European cooking, especially for its ability to preserve meat during the winter. It also was a marker of status in ancient Rome. It is claimed that a year’s supply of cinnamon was burned at the funeral of Roman Emperor Nero’s wife, after he killed her, as a way of expressing remorse. 

Cinnamon is extracted from the bark of the cinnamon tree, or the Cinnamomum tree, which has over 250 species worldwide and can grow up to 60 feet in height. It grows in tropical climes and is not cultivated in the temperate zone. It has a thin, smooth bark and a sweet, fragrant fragrance. Cinnamaldehyde, the active compound responsible for the distinctive cinnamon taste, is found in the bark. Cinnamon trees are cut every two years and the bark stripped from them. The bark contains over 80 aromatic chemicals that give the spice its unique flavor. The inner bark is then rolled, dried and sold as cinnamon sticks (also called cinnamon quills) that we see in our markets. This inner bark is the main medicinal part of the spice. 

The active components in cinnamon's essential oils provide unique healing properties. In the Middle Ages, physicians used cinnamon to treat ailments like colds, colic, and nausea. The active component cinnamyl alcohol inhibits blood platelet clumping and acts as an anti-inflammatory agent. It is also a potent antioxidant, and has been used for centuries to preserve food. Cinnamon also contains other minerals such as iron and magnesium, which make it a great addition to our food. These days, we make condiments using cinnamon. The cinnamon bun, a Swedish invention from the 1920s, has been very popular in the United States  since the 1950s. 

The Enduring Value Of Cinnamon

Cinnamon's history reaches back to ancient Egypt. In 2000 BCE, the ancient Egyptians were using cinnamon for embalming purposes. They also included it in their kyphi and phoenix-scented garments. The Hellenistics were also familiar with cinnamon, giving it to temples as a gift offering. Ancient Greek historians claimed that giant birds carried the spice to their nests. It finds a mention in the Bible as well. Moses uses cinnamon in holy oil and the Song of Solomon mentions cinnamon-scented garments.  

Cinnamon has been, and still is, used in a variety of dishes. It is a natural preservative. Its uses range from flavoring drinks to keeping foods fresh. The most obvious is its ability to add an enticing aroma to dishes.

The Fight For Cinnamon

Cinnamon is indigenous to Sri Lanka, our island neighbour off the coast of Tamil Nadu. It also grows in the Malabar Coast of India, Indonesia, Burma and is cultivated South America as well as the West Indies.

During the Middle Ages, cinnamon was first traded by the Arabs, until the Portuguese decided they wanted in on the trade of this expensive spice. In the 16th century, European explorers went far and wide searching for the source of this spice. In 1518, Portuguese traders discovered Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka. They took advantage of the natives' desire for cinnamon, forced the natives to grow cinnamon, and shipped the spice throughout the world. The Portuguese controlled the cinnamon trade for more than 100 years, eventually establishing a fort on the island. This kicked off a four-way competition over the next few decades as Portugal, Britain, Holland and France tried to control the cinnamon, and larger spice trade. Meanwhile, the Portuguese took their new prize to other places that had similar growing conditions. This led to the plantation of cinnamon in Indonesia, South America, and across the Pacific islands. Dutch traders later built a monopoly over the trade, until finally, in 1796, the British invaded Sri Lanka and seized the lucrative supply. 

In some counterintuitive ways, were it not for Portugal, the world would not have seen cinnamon become such a common spice.

The global market for cinnamon has increased in recent years. In 2017, 224,150 metric tons of cinnamon were produced, an increase of seven percent from five years earlier. The two most popular types of cinnamon these days are Ceylon and Cassia. By some estimates, Sri Lanka produces around 90% of the cinnamomum verum used across the world. Demand for the spice is only increasing around the world, with the U.S. and India being the top destinations. Indonesia, China the U.S. and India are the countries with the highest demand for cinnamon, accounting for a combined 57% of global consumption.