By Hassina Leelarathna
Results of a scientific research study just released in the US and publicized by news media worldwide present a game-changing bonanza for Sri Lanka’s cinnamon industry needs.
In the first known US study to analyze levels of the banned toxic chemical coumarin in cinnamon products, University of Mississippi scientists have basically given Ceylon Cinnamon, AKA True Cinnamon, a gold seal of approval, affirming that it contains negligible traces of the chemical as compared to cheaper substitutes imported from China, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
The study appearing in the April issue of Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (JAFC), published by the American Chemical Society, warns that in high doses coumarin could cause liver and kidney damage and calls for the setting of daily intake levels.
Given the exploding popularity of cinnamon, not simply as a food flavorant, but as a ‘miracle cure’ for a raft of health issues ranging from obesity to heart disease and arthritis, the findings spell boom time for the island’s cinnamon exports.
“This is a great development that opens up many possibilities for Sri Lankan cinnamon growers,” said Ananda Wickremasinghe (now living in Canada) who has been patiently awaiting the results ever since he took the initiative to get the study started in 2009 while serving as Consul General in Los Angeles.
Wickremasinghe, an agricultural graduate who spent most of his career as an agriculture scientist spotted the potential for promoting Ceylon Cinnamon in the US after its lower coumarin content and superiority over substitutes was established by European as well as Sri Lankan researchers. “Some Sri Lankan exporters were already aware of Ceylon Cinnamon’s lower coumarin levels and studies have been conducted by the Industrial Technology Institute. However, to gain acceptance in the U.S., an independent study by American researchers was needed.”
The researchers analyzed coumarin and other compounds in authenticated cinnamon bark samples as well as locally bought cinnamon samples, cinnamon-flavored foods, and cinnamon-based food. “The experimental results indicated that C. verum bark [Ceylon Cinnamon] contained only traces of coumarin, whereas barks from all three cassia species, especially C. loureiroi (Vietnam Cinnamon) and C. burmannii (Indonesian Cinnamon), contained substantial amounts of coumarin,” the study said.
They then analyzed of 21 cinnamon-flavored foods such as cereals, snacks, bread, rolls, bun, swirl, bar and pastries, all purchased from local stores. Except for cinnamaldehyde that is essential for cinnamon flavor, coumarin was detected in all cinnamon-flavored food products, varying in content from 0.05 to 2.4 mg per serving. Two cinnamon dietary supplements that contained powders of cinnamon bark were also analyzed and found to contain high coumarin levels — 2.5 and 3.9 mg per serving.
The identity of the cinnamon used in the samples was determined based on cinnamaldehyde and coumarin content, leading to the conclusion that most of the cinnamon used was of the Indonesian variety (C.burmannii) which has higher coumarin content, is cheaper, and accounts for 90% of US cinnamon imports in the past five years.
Call for coumarin intake
The researchers are calling for the establishment of a daily intake and maximum limits for coumarin levels in foods and supplements marketed in the US.
Such benchmark doses have already been laid down in several European countries resulting from studies that established high coumarin levels in foods and supplements that used cassia in place of true cinnamon.
In 2008, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment established a TDI of 0.1 mg coumarin per kg body weight, while maintaining that short term excesses (2-3 weeks) poses no health hazards.
However, in a 2012 study, Norwegian researchers who re-assessed coumarin toxicity in the general population, scaled down the TDI to 0.07 mg/kg after determining that in children eating oatmeal porridge with cinnamon and adults drinking cinnamon tea or taking cinnamon supplements the TDI may be exceeded several folds.
In the Czech Republic, authorities monitor coumarin levels in cinnamon and in cinnamon-based foods closely and publicize the results annually. Here too analyses of bakery products and breakfast cereals established high coumarin levels, all of it resulting from cassia derived flavoring and not from True Cinnamon. A 2012 study by Czech scientists echoed concerns raised in Norway – that children could easily exceed tolerable daily intake by consuming as few as 3 to 4 cinnamon-spiced cookies.
Coumarin has inexplicably escaped such monitoring in the US, despite being on the FDA’s list of banned food additives since 1954. The only scrutiny since then was a 2008 alert issued against artificial Mexican vanilla made with coumarin-containing tonka beans. The FDA warned of increased bleeding risk for patients taking the prescription drug warfarin and advised consumers not to purchase this product.
Sri Lanka’s share of the world cinnamon market is around 22% while its share of the US market is slightly less than 6%.
Upping the statistics to 10 percent of the international market is well within reach says Wickremasinghe. “It will require doubling Sri Lanka’s current cinnamon growing area, improving agronomic practices, and extending cultivation into parts of the wet zone where cinnamon is not currently growing,” he says. He strongly believes coumarin free cinnamon plants could be found in Sri Lanka and that they could be used to introduce coumarin free cinnamon varieties.
The study was conducted by University of Mississippi scientists Dr. Dhammika Nanayakkara, Dr. Yan-Hong Wang, Dr. Jianping Zhao, and Dr. Ikhlas A Khan.
It was supported in part by “Science Based Authentication of Dietary Supplements” funded by the Food and Drug Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, and the Global Research Network for Medicinal Plants (GRNMP), King Saud University. (Courtesy Eurasia Review)
(Hassina Leelarathna is a Los Angeles-based writer)