Vietnamese cinnamon

Toxic Difference: Saigon Vietnamese Cinnamon vs. Ceylon

[toc]Did you know this spice has more antioxidant activity than turmeric, acai powder, and ginger?

With an ORAC value of 131,420 its antioxidant power trounces blueberries by over 25-fold, when comparing equal weights of each. That’s for regular cinnamon, though all varieties are expected to have high ORAC values that are comparable.

In addition to being a potent antioxidant, the health benefits of Saigon cinnamon may include the lowering of blood sugar, blood pressure, and LDL cholesterol. Research suggests it may inhibit tau formation in the brain, which is a marker of Alzheimer’s disease. In vitro (lab) research is looking at effects on cancer cell growth. A human clinical trial suggested improvement in knee osteoarthritis. Some weight loss reviews claim success with daily supplementation. Antibacterial and antiviral activities have been seen.

To be clear, all of these potential advantages are unproven. They remain theoretical based on early studies. For details, check out the research on cinnamon benefits.

Despite all the good stuff being reported, there are serious health risks of this spice.

Before we dive into how it can be bad for you, let’s make sure we all understand what the different types of cinnamon are, because the danger isn’t with all forms.

Vietnamese cinnamon vs. Saigon cinnamon?

These are two names for the same thing, which is the species Cinnamomum loureiroi.

The names come from the fact that Vietnam is its largest exporter. Despite the Saigon moniker, it’s not farmed in or around that city. Though it is frequently used in cuisine there and throughout the rest of the country.

It’s an essential ingredient in their noodle soup known as pho, which is now popular throughout the world. In Los Angeles and Orange County, you will find over a thousand different restaurants that offer it.

Vietnamese cinnamon tastes like the more common cassia variety, but stronger. This is because its bark contains more cinnamaldehyde, which is the essential oil responsible for the sweet, savory, and woody flavor that cinnamon is known for. Being more aromatic, Vietnamese is also a more expensive variety.

King Arthur Flour Vietnamese cinnamon
Here’s how the brand King Arthur Flour describes the taste.

Where to buy?

Regular supermarkets rarely carry Vietnamese cinnamon in the US, UK, and Canada. Specialty culinary stores are you best bet.

The Sur La Table location we checked in Los Angeles sold it in-store. Its competitor, Williams Sonoma, may carry it. Availability at Whole Foods will vary by location. Surprisingly, Costco is a good place to buy it. They sell a 10.7 oz container under their Kirkland Signature store brand, which was only $2.99 at the time of this review.

Finding Vietnamese cinnamon sticks for sale is a bigger challenge. Even Penzeys Spices, which is a small chain of stores, only sells the ground powder. The brand Frontier Co-Op sells the sticks in a 1 lb bag, though we have only seen them available online.

The main brands selling the powdered form are King Arthur Flour, Frontier, McCormick, Olde Thompson, Spice Islands, and Pepper Creek Farms.

Difference vs. Chinese cassia

When people talk about “normal cinnamon” they are talking about cassia.

The Vietnamese (Cinnamomum loureiroi) and more common cassia cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia) are closely related. The latter is primarily grown in nearby southern China, which is why cassia is often called Chinese cinnamon.

whole sticks of cinnamon
Sticks of your standard cassia.

Even though a high quality crop from Vietnam is considered superior in taste, it has vanished from mainstream usage in the United States and Europe. Quality control issues compounded with the Vietnam War meant that by the 1960’s, it was more practical for food manufacturers to use cassia. It’s cheaper and more consistent in quality.

Difference vs. Indonesian Korintje

Indonesian and Korintje cinnamon are the same thing; the species Cinnamomum burmanni.

Also called Padang cassia, because Padang is the capital of the Indonesian West Sumatra province, which is where it grows.

Despite the Padang cassia nickname, Korintje is not the same thing as Chinese cassia. However the two can be used interchangeably in recipes.

Indonesian Korintje and Ceylon cinnamon next to each other
On the left is a stick of Korintje cinnamon, which looks comparable to cassia and Vietnamese. On right is Ceylon, which looks different than all the other varieties. photo by Anttivs via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 1.0 FI]
Korintje cinnamon is slightly less bitter but can be just as spicy as cassia. Its essential oil content ranges from 0.9% to 3%, while cassia is 0.9% to 7%. With both, the cinnamic aldehyde (cinnamaldehyde) is 65% to 95% of the oil. That’s according to the Handbook of Spices, Seasonings, and Flavorings.

The flavors are similar and so are the price points; they’re both cheap. Some sellers even categorize Chinese and Indonesian cinnamon as both being cassia. While technically different, both are of the same plant genus and the species differ only slightly.

Vietnamese cinnamon vs. Ceylon

Both botanically and in taste, the Vietnamese (C. loureiroi), Chinese (C. cassia), and Indonesian (C. burmanni) are very similar. Ceylon cinnamon (C. verum) is distinctly different. Native to Sri Lanka, it’s known as true cinnamon and has a more mellow flavor.

The country of Sri Lanka is a tiny island in the Indian Ocean that used to be called Ceylon and hence, the name.

what ground Ceylon cinnamon looks like
Ceylon is lighter in color and flavor.

Ceylon is the most expensive type of cinnamon and because it has a mild taste, more needs to be used in recipes. Even when used in abundance, the flavor is mildly sweet without the sharp kick of cassia or Saigon cinnamon.

It’s only been within the last century that cassia has dominated the western markets. Ceylon remains the most prized, even though its market share is in the minority.

In the Americas some call it Mexican cinnamon, though it’s not grown in Mexico. The reason for the naming is because the Spanish brought Ceylon cinnamon to Mexico some 400 years ago. To this day, it continues to be the number one choice for more sophisticated Mexican cuisine, like mole sauces. Unfortunately, most churros manufactured for the masses have switched to cheap cassia.

Coumarin is a fragrant chemical compound found in the tree bark of all cinnamon species. The most important takeaway is that Ceylon has the lowest coumarin content while the other varieties have exponentially higher amounts. In a moment you will understand why this matters, but first let’s recap the similarities and differences…

All 4 compared side by side

Cassia Cinnamon Vietnamese Cinnamon Korintje Cinnamon Ceylon Cinnamon
Other Names Normal/regular cinnamon, Chinese cassia, Chinese cinnamon Saigon cinnamon, Vietnamese cassia Indonesian cinnamon, Padang cassia True cinnamon, Mexican cinnamon
Scientific Name Cinnamomum cassia Cinnamomum loureiroi Cinnamomum burmanni Cinnamomum verum
Primary Origin China Vietnam Indonesia Sri Lanka
Taste Spicy and bitter Spicy and sweet Spicy Mildly sweet
Color Dark reddish brown Dark reddish brown Dark reddish brown Light reddish brown
Price Cheap Cheap to moderate (better grades cost more) Cheap Expensive
Coumarin Content 0.031% (0.31 g/kg) 0.697% (6.97 g/kg) 0.215% (0.215 g/kg) 0.0017% (0.017 g/kg)
Sources (1) (2)

It’s important to realize that the levels of coumarin in cinnamon can vary immensely. Other research has found the percent of coumarin in cassia and Saigon cinnamons to be much higher than the above references of 0.031% and 0.697%.

The German government tested 12 brands of cassia sold at retail and found some to contain up to 1% coumarin (that’s 30x higher than above). This makes answering the question “how much is too much to eat” quite difficult.

Since the variety from Vietnam is basically an amplified version of cassia, the high-end of its range is worse, not better. (3)

Is Vietnamese cinnamon safe?

p coumaric acid moleculeThat depends on your definition of safe.

The coumarin molecule found in Vietnamese or Saigon cinnamon is toxic to the liver, kidneys, and lungs. It’s linked to cancer in mice and rats. Occasional consumption of the spice is believed to be safe, though human data is limited. (4)

While the United States has not yet set maximum coumarin levels for cinnamon-containing foods, the European Union has since 2011. (5) (6)

EU’s Max Coumarin Levels Allowed In Food
Category Concentration (mg/kg) Percentage
Desserts 5 0.0005%
Breakfast cereals including muesli 20 0.002%
Traditional and/or seasonal bakery ware containing a reference to cinnamon in the labeling 50 0.005%
Fine bakery ware, with the exception of traditional and/or seasonal, bakery ware containing a reference to cinnamon in the labeling 15 0.0015%

The legal limits for coumarin are irrelevant to where it comes from. Regardless of the specific spice variety used, the total percent of coumarin measured in the given food needs to stay below these thresholds.

Since cassia is the primary type of cinnamon consumed in the US and Western nations, the vast majority of the research focuses on it. However the coumarin compound in dangerous regardless of where it’s coming from.

The proposed safe amounts to eat are specific to the cassia variety. The Vietnamese will be an even lower threshold, since it has an exponentially higher concentration of coumarin. Based on coumarin percentages reported, practically any variety of cinnamon appears to be safer for you than Vietnamese.

Even plain water is dangerous to drink in excess, so to what extent should you really be worried?

To answer, consider what the German government advises…

“In especially sensitive persons, even comparatively small quantities of coumarin can cause liver damage.”

They say this can happen after just “a few weeks” time. In mild cases, a higher amount of liver enzymes can be measured in your blood. In severe cases, inflammation of the liver and jaundice will result.

They do report some good news…

“However, the effects are usually reversible. In contrast, no such cases of liver damage following consumption of cinnamon have been described in the scientific literature to date.”

teaspoon next to tablespoonAs for the risk of getting cancer from cinnamon, they say that even though high dosages have been linked to tumors in mice and rats, there is not evidence of that happening in humans.

So taking this all into account, how much cinnamon per day is safe to ingest?

The German government has determined that the tolerable daily intake (TDI) is 0.1 mg of coumarin per kg (2.2 lbs) of body weight.

This is the amount that “a person can ingest daily over a lifetime without appreciable health risk.” (7)

For a 68 kg (150 lb) male or female, that equates to around 680 mg of cinnamon per day, if you assume a 1% coumarin content for cassia, which is the top of the range, 680 mg means only about ¼ teaspoon daily.

Since Vietnamese or Saigon cinnamon has about 7x the coumarin content, the amount you can safely consume everyday may be as little as 100 mg of cinnamon. That’s only about 4% of one teaspoon.

Remember a teaspoon is the smallest size spoon, it’s not the big one. Good luck with measuring 4% of that!

The takeaway

Saigon cinnamon is different from regular cinnamon and not in a good way. With up to 700% more of the coumarin poison by weight, side effects from this Vietnamese cinnamon are more likely; irritation of the lips, mouth sores, increased risk of bleeding, and potential liver damage.

Drug interactions include those for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, since the combined effect may result in blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol dropping too low. Safety during pregnancy and breastfeeding is unknown.

Eating a cinnamon roll or piece of pumpkin pie made with it won’t kill you, though it’s not the type you want to be eating regularly. Vietnamese is not healthy for you relative to the other varieties.

The fact that it’s hard to find the whole sticks for sale is probably a good thing. Saigon cinnamon capsules and supplements are sold online and they could be dangerous if used for an extended duration.

The safer alternative

You can avoid toxicity by switching to Ceylon cinnamon. It costs more money and the drawback is that it’s a weaker flavor, so you will need to use more, however the advantage is clear; it has up to 250 times less coumarin than Cassia and as much as 1,000 times less than Vietnamese.

While you may be able to find a little jar of Ceylon for sale at some grocery stores, the price can be a big ripoff on a per ounce basis. You’re better off buying in bulk, even if you don’t plan on using it all.

Here’s the brand that we at Superfoodly eat on a daily basis…

organic Ceylon cinnamon

Diyesta is a family-owned business in Sri Lanka. It’s been around since 1935 and this is the only spice they sell. It’s non-irradiated and USDA certified organic. Best of all, it’s ultra-low in coumarin. They report it’s 1,250 times less coumarin than regular cinnamon, which would mean thousands of times less than Saigon.

You can buy Diyesta Ceylon on Amazon and for convenient access, transfer some to a smaller container for daily usage. Here is the link for the Fido jar on Amazon that you see pictured above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.