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Coming Unglued

The Encyclopedia Britannica (1960) calls cinnamon Cinnamomum seylanicum, of the laurel family. Is this the European variety? It further states that this is not the "biblical" cinnamon, which is C. cassia.

On the other hand, the McCormick company labels its cinnamon "canela molida," obviously a different species. Is this an American substitute and, if so, what are we missing in this country?

First, let's dispose of your canela molida. I hate to tell you, but that's not a different species. It's simply the Spanish words for "ground cinnamon." (I can see your incandescent blush from here.)

But you're in good company to be confused. Cinnamon has been the fuzzy focus of factious fluster for centuries, as the spice trade offered several different products as "cinnamon" and as new classification systems named and renamed the various plant species. The major confusion, however, has been between true cinnamon and cassia, a member of the same genus, Cinnamomum.

True cinnamon is the bark of a tree native to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), the most prevalent species names of which are Cinnamomum verum ("true cinnamon") and C. zeylanicum ("Ceylon cinnamon"), of which C. seylanicum is a variant spelling. In continental Europe and the United Kingdom, the word "cinnamon" is limited to this species.

But in the United States, the FDA allows the word to be used not only for real cinnamon, but also for cassia and C. cassia, as well as for the Chinese and Indonesian cassia varieties, which go by several names. As a result, economics have forced the more expensive and more delicately flavored true cinnamon out of most supermarkets -- although it is available from specialty suppliers.

So most of us have been eating cassia, not cinnamon.

Cassia toast, anyone?

Robert L. Wolke (http://www.robertwolke.com) is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. His latest book is "What Einstein Told His Cook 2, the Sequel: Further Adventures in Kitchen Science" (W.W. Norton, 2005). He can be reached atwolke@pitt.edu.


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