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To me, imitation cinnamon flavor (like the extract, or artificially flavored candies) tastes pretty harsh, and not all that much like cinnamon. I can only assume it's an artificially-made form of the main aromatic compound in actual cinnamon.

So why do they seem so different? Are they actually identical? And how much of the real cinnamon aroma comes from that versus other things?

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    Interesting, I don't think I've ever heard of this product. I know that most "cinnamon" in the US isn't actually cinnamon but I'm guessing that's not what you're talking about? – Catija Jan 5 '17 at 19:41
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    @Catija There are definitely imitation cinnamon extracts that you can buy, as well as a lot of commercial artificially flavored cinnamon products (like Red Hots, and I think cinnamon Altoids). I recently had someone's homemade glazed cookies that really obviously had that flavor in them, so apparently people do actually use it sometimes :) – Cascabel Jan 5 '17 at 19:51
  • Oh! Extracts. Gotcha. I had ground cinnamon stuck in my head so I wasn't thinking about an extract. :) – Catija Jan 5 '17 at 20:04
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Imitation cinnamon is primarly pure cinnamaldehyde, or a related chemical. That's chemically identical to what's found in cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon, so you're not consuming anything you wouldn't also be getting from real cinnamon. It's what produces the piquancy (burn) of cinnamon, as well as the scent and flavor.

It's actually probably derived by extracting it from cinnamon bark (likely poor quality cinnamon bark that wouldn't taste good added to baked goods), though that can be labeled "natural" rather than "imitation". "Imitation" may indicate that some of the other flavor chemicals in it are synthesized, or that they will include some synthesized cinnamaldehyde if that turns out to be cheaper.

Natural cinnamon is made by dissolving cinnamon bark in a solvent like ethanol. Imitation cinnamon will also come with a solvent, with the same concentration of cinnamyl. It also contains a few hundred other chemicals, some of which are known, some of which are unknown, that are also dissolved from the bark.

If you buy a bottle of "imitation cinnamon" it will have at least some of those chemicals added in as well. The imitation versions have a more one-dimensional version of the taste, while the natural versions are more well-rounded. Adding in other chemicals tries to give it a less one-note taste.

For commercial flavors, like those added to candies, they'll use different sets of additional chemicals depending on their desired flavor profile, and the cost. More complex mixtures are more expensive to develop and make. Cheap candies tend to have just a few: their goal is to hit you with the heat and with a really obvious "this is cinnamon" effect.

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    Those artificially-flavored candies tend to use a lot of cinnamon flavor. They're often specifically trying to shock you with the burning sensation. If you sniff them, so that you're not getting the burn, it will probably smell more like a bad parody of cinnamon. – Joshua Engel Jan 5 '17 at 23:09
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    So the other flavors don't so much "balance out" as that they're just giving you less of the harsh parts while hitting a lot more, different flavor notes. An extract will have upwards of 100 detectable flavor compounds, while a good lab-made flavor (natural or artificial) will have perhaps 20 or 30. Even the cheap ones will usually have at least 3 or 4 others. – Joshua Engel Jan 5 '17 at 23:13
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    Sure, but it's something I recognize all over the place, it's not like it's just one brand. So it has to be either a really standard blend or pure cinnamaldehyde (or very dominated by it), and that apparently makes it not taste like cinnamon (to me, at least). – Cascabel Jan 5 '17 at 23:37
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    It's probably dominated by cinnamaldehyde, with the same few additional flavours which are also quite harsh. There are probably significant sweet components of real cinnamon that don't make it to any imitation flavouring (or maybe not even to the real extract if they're not soluble in alcohol). Then more of the main harsh flavour is used to make up for it - plus extra in the hot-cinnamon candies – Chris H Jan 6 '17 at 7:00
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    I wonder if @Jefromi is thinking of true Ceylon cinnamon as "actual cinnamon" whereas the imitation stuff is made from Indonesian or Chinese or Vietnamese cinnamon, which is cassia. I find that in the US, anything sold as cinnamon in grocery stores tends to be cassia, which has a much harsher and smokier flavor than Ceylon cinnamon. I buy Ceylon cinnamon online because I prefer its gentler flavor that doesn't overwhelm the dish and the palate. But it's more expensive than cassia. I'm willing to bet that the extract, at least that made from bark rather than synthesized, is derived from cassia. – verbose Jan 6 '17 at 17:00

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