KOCHI: It is not easy to distinguish between cinnamon and its lookalike cassia. The former is a spice used in cooking for its flavour and as an ingredient in Ayurveda drugs for its health benefits, while the latter – mostly imported from China – is considered harmful to health.
The Spices Board had suggested way back in 2008 that “cassia may be listed as restricted item for import”, but it is still being imported in large quantities, reveals an RTI reply. India imported 19,405 tonnes of cassia worth Rs 242 crore during 2015-16.
According to industry sources, 70 per cent of Ayurveda drugs are supposed to contain cinnamon. However, a substantial part of this might be cassia, which is much cheaper and easily available, sources add.
Cassia reportedly creates health problems such as kidney /liver damages and even cancer. The poisonous nature of cassia is mainly due to the presence of a substance called coumarin, which can be toxic when used at high doses for a long period.
Cinnamon is grown in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The spice is also imported from Sri Lanka. On the other hand, cassia is imported into the country from China, Vietnam and Indonesia and is much cheaper.
“The Spices Board had suggested a ban on the import of cassia into the country in 2008 itself. Even after eight years, no action has been taken. Again in February 2016, the board has stated that banning the import of cassia may not have a big impact in the trade. But, the RTI reply I received on January 31, 2017 says imports happened vigorously,” says Leonard John, who owns 45 acres of cinnamon plantation in Kannur district of Kerala.There are around 100 cinnamon farmers in the country. The spice is produced in 1,000 acres and it produces around 20,000 kg a year. Even though the production cost of cinnamon is in the range Rs 400 to Rs 1,500 a kg, the product is available at Rs 400 a kg now.
P J Kunjachan, chairman and managing director of Arjuna Natural Extract, a spice importer, said it is a known fact that low-quality spices are being dumped into the country. “Another issue is that we do not have proper lab facilities to test these samples.”
On November 26, 2016, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India issued a notification banning the wholesale and retail sales of cassia.
“The import of cassia is not completely banned in the country. But, there are restricting regarding usage. The produce is used in masala manufacturing units only in negligent quantities. We take necessary steps to examine samples imported to India,” said a spokesperson of Spices Board.