Cinnamon — the charming spice that gives Red Hots their kick and cinnamon buns their name — has reached superfood status, owing to its numerous health benefits. Scientists told us that regular consumption of cinnamon could potentially lower blood sugar, help digestion, ease arthritis, lower cholesterol and even ward off Alzheimer’s.

But now — cue record scratch sound effect here — researchers are warning that too much of the spice may cause liver damage. The type of cinnamon most commonly used, cassia, contains high levels of coumarin, which can spell trouble for the organ responsible for much of the body’s filtering processes. In fact, the European Union has created guidelines for the maximum content of coumarin in food items. In Denmark, food authorities have placed a limit on how much cinnamon can be used in the nation’s famous cinnamon swirls, causing a great rallying cry of “viva la cinnamon” by bakers and pastry eaters alike who argue that changing the traditional recipe will create a less-tasty pastry.

Meanwhile, Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has warned that anyone who regularly eats a lot of cassia cinnamon — more than two grams (0.07 ounce) a day for a 132-pound adult — could be at risk for liver damage. Of course this raises the question of how people are getting their cinnamon. Are they sprinkling cinnamon in moderation? Or are they eating too many danishes?

And this is where Ceylon cinnamon (cinnamon verum) comes into the picture.

Ceylon cinnamon grows in Sri Lanka, Madagascar and the Seychelles, while cassia cinnamon comes from Indonesia and China. Also known as “true cinnamon,” Ceylon cinnamon is expensive and thus used much less frequently; unless labeled (and priced) accordingly, cassia cinnamon is the kind your supermarket will most likely stock.

Cassia cinnamon is the one that has been more commonly studied for health benefits; but scientists say that Ceylon cinnamon is likely safer in very high doses than cassia. (Although both cassia and Ceylon cinnamon are considered by the FDA to be safe for human consumption, yet specific quantities are not mentioned.)

A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry tested cinnamon commercially available in the U.S. and found "substantial amounts" of coumarin in cassia cinnamon, but only trace amounts of coumarin in Ceylon cinnamon. Research found that on average, cassia cinnamon powder had up to 63 times more coumarin compared to Ceylon cinnamon powder, while cassia cinnamon sticks contained 18 times more than Ceylon cinnamon sticks.

If you decide to use a lot of cinnamon, "you do need to use Ceylon because it will lower your risk of liver damage," Angela Ginn, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics told The Wall Street Journal.

"From a safety point of view, Ceylon cinnamon is better," concurs cinnamon researcher Ikhlas A. Khan, assistant director for the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi's School of Pharmacy.

cinnamon sticks

Photo: Antti Vähä-Sipilä/Wikimedia Commons

So how to tell the difference between the two? Ceylon (pictured above, left) is less common and more expensive as previously mentioned. Ceylon is also lighter in color, tastes lighter and brighter and packs less of a spicy punch. In powder form the two types are indistinguishable (although Ceylon will usually be labeled as such, to justify its price), but in stick form they look different; Cassia (pictured above, right) is comprised of a thick layer of rolled bark, while Ceylon has thinner, more fibrous-looking layers.

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