Saving the Cinnamon industry of Sri Lanka

(An ITI release)

The Cinnamon Industry of Sri Lanka spans several years as being a traditional industry in the country. In early years, cinnamon, being one of the most important spices, had been used in the barter system of trade where goods were exchanged instead of money. The botanical name Cinnamomum zeylanicum Blume, signifies the Sri Lankan origin of the plant. The cinnamon plant produces five major commercial products namely; quills, featherings, chips, leaf oil and bark oil. From these the major export products are the quills which accounts for about 90% of the whole industry. Cinnamon is the 3rd largest export agricultural crop of Sri Lanka and provides 80-85% of the world demand for cinnamon. Connamon cultivation and processing provides a livelihood to over 70,000 growers in the southern region of Sri Lanka and employment to over 350,000 people. Fifteen thousand metric tons of Ceylon Cinnamon is exported from Sri Lanka to Latin America, United States and also to other European countries.

Cinnamon being one of the oldest spices known has a wide range of applications, which accounts for the high demand for the commodity. It is used in food industry as a flavouring agent, in liquors, perfumery and in medicine. Its use as an insect repellent is also well known. The antimicrobial effects of dinnamon have been studied by several research groups in the country, and it has been shown that it has antibacterial, anti fungal and antiviral activity. Cinnamon oil has the ability to control mosquito larvae and is also widely used in traditional medicine to treat diarrhoea, nausea and flatulence.

With its widely accepted medicinal value, in recent times research has been directed towards establishing the nausea and flatulence.

With its widely accepted medicinal value, in recent times research has been directed towards establishing the nutraceutical values of cinnamon on a scientific basis, It has been proved that cinnamon has the property of reducing cholesterol and sugar levels in blood especially in the water soluble portion of this spice. Cinnamon therefore is now being used as an adjunct in beverages, where cinnamon sticks are dipped in hot tea or coffee.

Since, November 2004 however, the cinnamon industry in the country has taken quite a beating with the rejection of a number of consignments of cinnamon exported to the European Union. The rejection was based on the grounds that the consignments contained sulphur dioxide. This seems ludicrous as sulphur dioxide is a permitted as a food additive, functioning as either a preservative, antioxidant, or anti browning agent, in certain food items listed by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which is the FAO body entrusted with setting up international standards for the food industry. However this list does not include cinnamon although spices such as ginger and mustard which like cinnamon are used as food additives, are included and tolerable limits of Sulphur Dioxide defined.

In 1998 a chemical evaluation was undertaken by the Joint Expert Committee in Food Additives (JECFA)A and it was established that sulphur dioxide in acceptable quantities did not have any adverse effects on human health and the tolerable limit of the chemical has been defined at 150mg/kg of body weight.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka is facing another battle in relation to the botanical name of cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum Blume. India has proposed to the International Standard Organization to change this name to Cinnamomum Verum J. Presel. According to the literature, the former was documented in 1926 and the latter in 1925. Since then both names are commonly used in the literature.

The name Cinnamomum zelanicum Blurne, identifies its Sri Lankan origin and its band name "Ceylon Cinnamon" has been in the market for centuries as the sole producer. Changing the name will affect the market advantage, as India is also now producing small quantities of true cinnamon in kerala and Madagascar area.

Compounding this problem, is that Sri lankan cinnamon Industry has also to face the intense competition in the global cinnamon market from Cassia (Cinnamomum cassia or Cinnamon aromaticum). Cassia, is produced in large quantities in Indonesia, Malaysia and China. These countries are vigorously promoting their produce to the market at a lower price, posing a threat to the future of Sri Lankan cinnamon. Several value added products are also being introduced to the market. Although in some export markets both are known as "canela", there are many differences among these two varieties and these intrinsic differences have been identified by culinary experts. Cinnamon has a fine taste and a sophisticated floral smell while Cassia is robust and has a strong smell. Cinnamon is sweet and delicate while Cassia is bitter and coarse. The superiority of the product is amply demonstrated by the fact that although in terms of volumes traded the volume of cassia traded is three times that of cinnamon, converse if true for the selling price of cinnamon.

In chemical terms, the principle constituent that contributes to the taste and aroma of cinnamon is cinnamaldehyde. Although the percentage of cinnamaldehyde is higher in cassia, which accounts for the strong and robust flavour, the other constituents, which gives rise to the distinct subtle flavour of cinnamon is not present in casia. Moreover, the high percentage of cinnamaldehyde in cassia imparts irritant and sensitizing properties. Also Cassia oil contains almost 5% of the class of compounds called coumarins which are known to have undesirable health effects on laboratory animals, while the coumarin content in cinnamon oil amount to only 0.02%.

To counteract the threats posed to the Cinnamon industry, the intervention of scientists, legislators, industrialists and trade officials in the country is necessary. Scientists, in addition to establishing the safe levels of Sulphur dioxide for international trade, should also establish alternative and viable methods of treatment for the industry as a whole, to meet any future challenges which could threaten the industry.

To study this situation and to recommend measures to counteract this threat to the export trade of the country, a national committee was set up by the Department of Commerce consisting of the stakeholders in the field and other local bodies such as the Industrial Technology Institute, Sri Lanka Standards Institutions, Export Development Board and the Spice Council. Armed with sufficient scientific data to back her request, Sri Lanka through its National CODEX Committee made formal representation to Codex Alimentaris Commission to identify cinnamon as a foodstuff where Sulphur dioxide could be used and to permit as an interim measure a maximum level of 150 parts per million until such time a standard is established by the Codex Alimentaris Commission. Sri Lanka also wrote to the WTO Committee on Sanitary & Phytosanitary measures requesting their intervention as well, and apprising them of the adverse trade implications to Sri Lanka under the present regulations.

The Industrial Technology Institute, being part of the committee, and having carried out several studies in the chemistry and technology of cinnamon and the industry as a whole, launched a further investigations into the processes employed by the traditional cinnamon industry prior to export of the product to substantiate and claims of the safety in the cinnamon products exported. According to EU regulations, if cinnamon contains more than a prescribed amount of sulphur dioxide, this should be indicated in the label, since sulphites are included in the list of food allergens issued by the European Union. According to their food labelling directives it is mandatory that any foodstuff containing over the prescribed amount of the listed allergens should be so labelled. However, this labelling could seriously affect our exports, and this is one of the reasons that ITI placed high priority on the present study. Although cinnamon has been exported from the country for several years, no scientific studies have been conducted on the process itself. The study undertaken by the Herbal Technology Section of the Institute, had as the major objectives, to standardize the process and to quantify and minimize the residual sulphur dioxide levels in the cinnamon prepared for export.

Several steps are involved in the processing of cinnamon. Sulphur is two fold. As a fumigant to control the infestation of pests and microbes, making use of its antimicrobial properties, and as a bleaching agent to impart the characteristic golden yellow colour of Ceylon cinnamon.

A study of the traditional procession of cinnamon, showed that once the branches of the cinnamon trees are cut and the bark separated, the quills are air dried indoors. The bales of cinnamon quills are then stacked on racks and exposed to sulphur, which is burnt in a metal container placed under the racks. This fumigation process is carried out in a closer chamber. Through fumigation sulphur dioxide resides are introduced in the cinnamon, but studies revealed that even immediately after fumigation, the residue level was relatively low and within three days this level drops even further if the quills are dried to an appropriate moisture level Higher moisture levels will increase the retention of Sulphur dioxide in cinnamon. The importance of introducing Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) to the traditional process is therefore evident, if the Sulphur level is to be reduced. The researchers are now working on this aspect, and also exploring alternative methods of fumigation so as to completely eliminate the presence of sulphur dioxide. The use of ozone and super heated steam are two such alternatives, but the high cost of these methods could negatively effect the final selling price of the product.


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