Cinnamon is one of the most common spices in the world. It enhances sweet and savory dishes alike, and heck, you can even use it to clear up your skin. But, do you know where your favorite French toast garnish comes from? The history of cinnamon is full of surprises.

Ancient Treasure

Humans have been eating cinnamon for thousands of years. The spice derives from the bark of evergreen trees belonging to the genus Cinnamomum. As the bark dries, it forms distinctive rolls creating what we know as a cinnamon stick.

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Stash

Four-thousand-year-old evidence suggests that ancient Egyptians used cinnamon in their famous embalming processes. By 2000 B.C., ancient cultures treated the spice as a royal gift; they even offered it in sacrifice to their gods.

Arab traders introduced cinnamon to Europe, but because of the spice’s popularity, those involved in its trade kept its origin a secret. These traders told many tall-tales about cinnamon’s origin. The mystery helped them keep hold of their monopoly.

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Depiction of the Opening of the Mouth ritual. Papyrus of Hunefer, c. 1280 BC.

One such tale comes from the Greek historian Herodotus. He claimed giant birds carry sticks of cinnamon to their nests, where no man could ever reach. The only way to get the spice was to trick the birds into making their nests too heavy, causing the cinnamon to fall to the ground.

Secrets Revealed

During the 16th century, European explorers went out in search of their own cinnamon to fill the growing demand. Portuguese traders discovered one of the spice’s sources in 1518, in Ceylon (what is now Sri Lanka), and the fight over cinnamon began. The Dutch built the monopoly, but in 1796, British forces arrived in Ceylon to wrest away control of the lucrative supply.

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iStock

By the 1800s, cinnamon was no longer a rare item reserved only for the wealthy. Producers in the Indian Ocean region, the West Indies, Brazil, and Guyana flooded the market with lower-quality cinnamon. This ruined the monopoly but democratized cinnamon, making everyone able to afford the spice.

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Leandra Witchwood/The Magic Kitchen

Today, there are two types of cinnamon available: Ceylon and Cassia. Cassia cinnamon comes from Indonesia and has the stronger flavor of the two. When you buy a bottle of ground cinnamon from the grocery store, it’s probably Cassia. While the Ceylon cinnamon has a milder flavor, it’s sweeter than Cassia and better for some dishes. Ceylon cinnamon will cost you a little more to buy, but it also contains much lower levels of a substance called coumarin, which can increase the risk of liver disease in high doses.

Other Uses

Cinnamon isn’t just a delicious addition to baked goods and savory dishes. There are many uses for this versatile spice, ranging from bug repellents to skin treatments. Speaking of, don’t spend big money next time you need a good body scrub or face mask: Here are some recipes for beauty products made of cinnamon. The spice has antimicrobial properties, so it works great for keeping skin clear. You can also use it as a natural lip plumper.

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The Kitchen Table

Studies have shown that cinnamon also has incredible health benefits. Add cinnamon to drinks or food to help lower cholesterol, reduce pain, help treat diabetes, and even improve circulation. Try adding a little spice to your life by sprinkling this wonder bark on your next meal.