Fresh Clips: Does Pohnpei Cinnamon Redeem Sassafras?

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79 percent of the plants in Micronesia are not found elsewhere.

Michael Balick, director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden, might know more about Pohnpei than anyone. Over the past decade, he has studied the biodiversity of the islands, particularly its medicinal plants. He recently collaborated on a new book, Ethnobotany of Pohnpei: Plants, People and Island Culture (University of Hawai’i Press, 2009). The book is an effort of Balick and Pohnpei colleagues, under the supervision of the Pohnpei Council of Traditional Leaders.

In a recent interview on the radio show EarthSky, Balick and his colleagues documented a species of cinnamon (Cinnamomum carolinense), known locally as madeu, that is found only on Pohnpei. Balick found that islanders commonly drink tea made from the tree’s bark to relieve pain. Curiously, the bark of the Pohnpei cinnamon species contains high amounts of the carcinogenic compound safrole–the same substance found in sassafras bark, which prevents the herb from being sold for herbal tea in the United States.

Balick and his research team were puzzled by the fact that Pohnpeians did not develop cancer from drinking the cinnamon bark tea. Following chemical analysis of the bark, they tested the chemistry of the tea. They discovered that the process of heating the bark to make tea removes the harmful chemical from the tea. 

This is a shift from researching the chemistry of a plant part to studying the chemistry of the form in which the plant is ingested, such as an herbal tea. It could lead to rethinking some of the assumptions in scientific literature. It is well-known that sassafras bark contains high amounts of safrole. Based on the Pohnpei cinnamon research, what might new chemical research on boiled sassafras tea (rather than sassafras bark) reveal? 

Where is Pohnpei? 

No, that’s not a misspelling of Pompei, Italy. Pohnpei is not a city. It’s an obscure, tiny Western Pacific island country that even the most seasoned geographical enthusiast may have a hard time pointing to on any map. The island is one of four states comprising the Federated States of Micronesia, which includes more than 600 small islands spread across nearly 1,700 miles. Collectively, they represent just 270 square miles of land area.

KA Reynertson and MJ Balick, et al. “A traditional method of Cinnamomum carolinense preparation eliminates safrole from a therapeutic Pohnpeian tea.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 102 (2005) 269-274.

Steven Foster is an expert on medicinal plants.