Cinnamon: Food Science Slice

A brief look into the science and history behind our favorite holiday scent

The power and allure of cinnamon is as old as civilization itself. The ancient Egyptians used it to embalm mummies and Roman emperors burned it on the funeral pyres of their beloved. Arab traders traveled dangerous land routes to keep its source in Asia a secret throughout the Middle Ages. Christopher Columbus set sail for the new world in search of the spice, which comes from the inner bark of cinnamon trees. In more modern times, the entire island kingdom of Ceylon (now present-day Sri Lanka) was enslaved for centuries, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the Brits, as they each sought a global monopoly on the valuable commodity.

Cinnamon was particularly desirable before the industrial revolution, as it could be used as a preservative for meats during the winter. Today, we know that is because cinnamon’s essential oils have potent antimicrobial and antifungal properties. They’re also the source of its iconic holiday scent.

In order to be perceptible by our noses, chemicals need to be small, lipophilic (dissolve in fats), and volatile (rapidly evaporating). Cinnamaldehyde is one such compound, a ring-shaped structure made up of 9 carbons, 8 hydrogens and 1 oxygen. The essential oil found in cinnamon bark is 90 percent cinnamaldehyde. That’s why it smells so good. Those molecules evaporate into the air and get absorbed by the mucous membranes in our noses before getting turned into electrical signals in our brains that trigger thoughts of cinnamon rolls, spiced latt├ęs, and holiday candles. The cool thing is, the fine-tuning of our olfactory machinery allows us to distinguish between chemically similar molecules.

Because a lot of our favorite scents are just a few molecules away from each other. If you were to take cinnamaldehyde and subtract 2 carbons and hydrogens, you’d get the smell of almonds. Shift an oxygen around and add a methyl group and you’ve got vanilla. Pretty neat, huh?

Find quills of cinnamon in the Wedge’s bulk section this holiday season; they’re perfect in a mug of cider or for adorning a parcel.