A reprint from The Nation (LK)
by Hassina Leelarathna
Alarming levels of banned toxic found in substitutes makes local Cinnamon safer and desirable A scientific research study four years in the making and just released in the US spells a major windfall for Sri Lanka’s cinnamon industry. Appearing in the April issue of the prestigious Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (JAFC), published by the American Chemical Society, the study by researchers at the University of Mississippi analyzing levels of the banned toxic chemical coumarin in cinnamon products affirms the superiority of Ceylon Cinnamon, AKA True Cinnamon, as compared to more widely used cinnamon substitutes. High levels of coumarin, a chemical that naturally occurs in cinnamon, is a toxic to the liver, acts as an anticoagulant, and is known to cause cancer in rodents. According to the researchers, experiments conducted using a variety of popular cinnamon flavored foods and cinnamon food supplements found in Ceylon Cinnamon to contain insignificant traces of coumarin whereas barks from cassia, imported from China, Vietnam and Indonesia and sold as cinnamon in the US, had substantial amounts of the toxic chemical. “This is a great development that opens up many possibilities for Sri Lankan cinnamon growers”, said former Consul General Ananda Wickremasinghe (now living in Canada). He 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”. He presented the proposal to Research Professor in Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Mississippi Dr. Dhammika Nanayakkara, one of the nation’s top pharmaceutical research colleges. Dr. Nanayakkara eventually co-authored the study with research scientists Dr. Yan-Hong Wang (University of Mississippi), Bharathi Avula (University of Mississippi), Jianping Zhao, and Ikhlas A Khan. The research 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. 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. Researchers then analyzed 21 cinnamon-flavored foods such as cereals, snacks, bread, rolls, buns, 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. Surprisingly, despite cinnamon’s widespread use as a flavoring in a wide range of foods and its growing popularity as a ‘miracle cure’ for everything from diabetes to weight loss this is the first published study in the US that analyzes the coumarin content of cinnamon. As such this is also the first American study that affirms Ceylon Cinnamon’s low coumarin content – a fact long known to European researchers and industry insiders. While coumarin has been banned in the US as a food additive since 1954, its presence is mostly associated with artificial vanilla (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanilla). Coumarin was also banned as an adulterant in cigarettes by tobacco companies in 1997 but due to the lack of reporting requirements to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it is still being used as a flavoring additive in pipe tobacco. The JAFC article warns that ingesting substantial amounts of coumarin on a daily basis may pose a health risk to individuals who are more sensitive to the compound. The researchers are calling for the establishment of a Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) and maximum limits for coumarin in foods marketed in the US. European health agencies already recognize the adverse side effects of coumarin and EU regulations specify a TDI for coumarin of 0.1 milligrams of coumarin per kilogram for food products. But setting such limits doesn’t ensure compliance. Recent tests by a leading independent consumer protection group warned that coumarin levels in a variety of cookies, cereals and rice puddings sold in Germany were up to 20 times the European legal limit. The US study, which establishes the occurrence of high coumarin levels in popular foods as well as health supplements, is bound to attract the attention of consumer groups and open the door to scrutiny of cinnamon additives by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the federal agency that oversees and sets guidelines for food safety. Wickremasinghe believes Sri Lankan authorities should seize the opportunity and take proactive measures, such as promotional events by foreign missions, contacting food watchdogs, and making oversight bodies such as the FDA and Health Canada in North America aware of the study, in order to maximize the leverage potential of Ceylon Cinnamon. 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% of the international market is well within reach says Wickremasinghe, adding that every measure must be taken to increase cinnamon production. “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. Coincidentally, the study comes in the midst of a growing controversy over “The Cinnamon Challenge”, a prank that challenges teenagers to shovel a spoonful of ground cinnamon into their mouths. The fad has gone viral with over 40,000 videos posted on You Tube, nearly 3 million Google hits and on the flip side, dozens of challengers ending up in emergency rooms with serious problems such as collapsed lungs. Worried parents are scrambling to put a stop to it, while bloggers, talk show hosts, school authorities, and doctors are all weighing in. Surprisingly, doctors are coming out saying cinnamon is ‘totally harmless’ other than for an inert substance called cellulose which can lodge in the lungs. No mention of coumarin. “What better time to start talking about the facts of cinnamon and the superiority of our cinnamon to the American public and pass the message along to other countries?” asks Wickremasinghe. The planets are definitely lined up in favor of a big push for Ceylon Cinnamon.