You may be surprised to learn that most commercial ground cinnamon is actually cassia or a combination of cinnamon and cassia. This practice is permitted with no restriction by most countries, including the United States. So cassia is not necessarily another name for cinnamon, it is a completely different spice, although they are related. Native to Burma, cassia is botanically-known as Cinnamomum aromaticum or Cinnamomum cassia.
It is a member of the same family as true cinnamon, but it has a stronger flavor thus requiring less in volume.
Cassia in Recipes
Cassia is usually a better choice for savory dishes, rather than sweets. Whereas cinnamon is best for the latter. Dried cassia buds resembling cloves are used in the East for pickles, curries, candies and spicy meat dishes. Tiny yellow cassia flowers have a mild cinnamon flavor and are sold preserved in a sweetened brine and used to perfume sweets, fruits, teas and wines. Cassia leaves may also be used as a flavoring in the same manner as bay leaves.
How to Tell the Difference Between Cinnamon and Cassia
Real cinnamon sticks or quills curl in a telescopic form, that is in a perfect circle. But, cassia sticks curl inward from both sides, appearing like a scroll. Small pieces of the quills of either cinnamon or cassia are called quillings. When ground, it is hard to distinguish between the two.
But the difference is in the color and smell of each of the spices. Cinnamon is warmer in tone and tan in color with a sweet flavor. Cassia is more of a reddish brown in color and has a more course texture, with a stronger, yet more bitter flavor. Another reason why it's important to distinguish between Ceylon cinnamon and Cassia cinnamon is because of the presence of coumarin.
Coumarin is a toxin that could damage your liver if eaten regularly. Coumarin is also a potential carcinogenic. Cassia cinnamon has very high levels of coumarin. Ceylon has none or very little coumarin. To avoid this toxin, go with Ceylon cinnamon.
How to Find Pure Cinnamon
True or pure cinnamon, which is most commonly called Ceylon cinnamon, comes from the plant Cinnamomum zeylanicum. Those looking for the health benefits of cinnamon should look for the pure version as cassia does not carry the same antioxidant properties as Ceylon cinnamon. You can find Ceylon cinnamon online or in health food stores like Whole Foods Market. However, the cost of Ceylon cinnamon is significantly higher than Cassia cinnamon. Expect to pay upwards of 3-4 times the cost of Cassia for Ceylon cinnamon.