“Mint” is a name like “Smith”—very common. There’s field mint, forest mint, marsh mint, and mountain mint; Egyptian mint, Vietnamese mint, and Corsican mint; curly mint, thorn mint, and slender mint. And, of course, there are the famous twins, spearmint and peppermint. In all, about 600 plants answer to the name “mint.” (There’s even a Smith’s mint.) And thousands of products contain it.
Mint is one of the most popular and recognizable flavors in the world. It’s an ingredient in (among other things) soft drinks, candies, cocktails and liqueurs, jellies, syrups, cakes, ice teas, and ice creams. However, the mint that flavors these tasty treats is one mint: Peppermint. The sweet mint.
When you go to the grocery store to buy a jar of mint for recipes that call for the spice, you also are buying one mint: Spearmint. The savory mint.
But sweet or savory, refreshing mint is a potent healer. Starting with your digestive tract.
Keep Your Digestive Tract in Mint Condition
Studies show peppermint can help ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a digestive problem that strikes an estimated one out of every seven Americans, many of them women. Medical scientists call IBS a “functional” health problem—they can’t find any structural abnormality in the bowel, but they do know that it’s not functioning normally, as intestinal muscles contract slower or faster than normal. The result: a range of symptoms that can include abdominal pain, cramping, and bloating; excess gas; diarrhea and constipation (sometimes one, and sometimes both, alternating).
Peppermint relaxes the muscles of the GI tract, helping to normalize those contractions and ease symptoms.
In a study by Italian researchers, 54 people with IBS took enteric-coated peppermint oil for four weeks. (The coating ensures the pill dissolves in the intestines rather than the stomach.) At the start and end of the study, the researchers measured the severity of abdominal bloating, abdominal pain or discomfort, diarrhea, constipation, feeling of incomplete evacuation, pain at defecation, passing of gas or mucus, and urgency of defecation. Seventy-five percent of people taking the remedy had at least a 50 percent reduction in symptoms.
In another study, 110 people with IBS were divided into two groups: one group took a placebo, and one group took an enteric-coated peppermint oil capsule 15 to 30 minutes before each meal. Of those taking peppermint, 79 percent reported relief from abdominal pain and discomfort, and 29 were pain-free. Bloating was reduced in 83 percent. Flatulence was eased in 79 percent. And 83 percent reported having to take fewer trips to the bathroom. There was little improvement in the placebo group.
Researchers in Canada found that peppermint oil can help clear up bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine, a suspected cause of IBS. “The results in this case suggest one of the mechanisms by which enteric-coated peppermint oil improves IBS symptoms,” they concluded in Alternative Medicine Review.
And when researchers in the Gastroenterology Division of McMaster University in Canada evaluated 38 studies on treatments for IBS, they found three treatments were effective: more fiber in the diet, anti-spasmodic drugs—and peppermint oil.
But IBS isn’t the only digestive problem that mint can help solve.
Indigestion. Researchers in the UK evaluated 17 studies using a natural remedy combining peppermint and caraway oil, and found it effectively reduced stomachache and other post-meal digestive symptoms 60 to 95 percent of the time.
A study of 96 people in Germany found that a peppermint-containing remedy offered significant relief from what doctors call “dyspepsia” (and you call indigestion). After four weeks of use, there was a 40 percent reduction in symptoms.
Colonoscopy. Japanese researchers found that using peppermint oil during a colonoscopy reduced GI spasms in 86 percent of 409 people, with “no adverse affects”—making it a “convenient alternative” to anti-spasmodic drugs that “sometimes cause side effects.”
Upper endoscopy. During this medical test, a tube is inserted into the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine. The same team of Japanese researchers found that peppermint oil had “superior efficacy” compared to an anti-spasmodic drug in easing the procedure. Peppermint also produced “no significant side effects,” whereas the drug produced dry mouth, blurred vision, and urinary retention.
Mint may help prevent and/or treat:
pulmonary disease (COPD)
Gum disease (gingivitis)
Hirsutism (unwanted hair growth in women)
Caution: Peppermint isn’t perfect for all digestive problems. Some medical experts urge caution for those with heartburn, hiatal hernia, and kidney stones, because peppermint’s ability to relax the GI tract might make those problems worse.
Peppermint is rich in the compound menthol—the rush of coolness you feel from peppermint-containing foods, beverages, and self-care products is menthol stimulating coldness receptors in the mucous membranes or the skin.
In a study by Germany researchers investigating how menthol works to ease nasal congestion, they reached the same conclusion as enthusiastic buyers of mentholated lozenges: it produces “the subjective feeling of a clear and wide nose.”
Researchers in Wales agree. They studied 62 people with a cold, dividing them into two groups: half received a lozenge containing 11 milligrams (mg) of menthol and half a placebo lozenge. There was a “significant change” in “nasal sensation of airflow” in those sucking on menthol.
In the UK, researchers asked 20 people to repeatedly inhale a substance that would make them cough. Five minutes before each “cough challenge,” the people inhaled either menthol, a pine scent, or air. Only “menthol inhalation caused a reduction in cough,” wrote the researchers in the medical journal Thorax.
And when Japanese researchers impaired the breathing of 11 people, they found that breathing menthol produced a “significant reduction in sensations of respiratory discomfort.”
Minting More Relief
There are many other ways that peppermint and spearmint can refresh your health.
Postherpetic neuralgia. As mentioned a moment ago, menthol triggers cold-sensitive receptors in cells, producing a cooling sensation so intense that the compound is an ingredient in pain-relieving topical products such as Icy Hot and Bengay. Well, that rush of cold sensation is also why menthol might work in relieving the intense pain of postherpetic neuralgia—nerve pain after a bout of shingles, a blistering viral rash that typically afflicts people in middle and old age.
In a report in the Clinical Journal of Pain, researchers at the Pain Management Center of University College found that applying peppermint oil containing 10 percent menthol “resulted in an almost immediate improvement of pain” in a patient with postherpetic neuralgia, with the relief lasting four to six hours.
Work performance. Menthol also seems to refresh the mind. Researchers at Wheeling Jesuit University in the US found that sniffing peppermint oil improved performance on two clerical tasks: typing (speed and accuracy) and alphabetical filing. “Peppermint oil may promote a general arousal of attention” so people “stay focused on their task and increase performance,” concluded the researchers in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCPCOS). This condition of abnormally high testosterone levels afflicts one out of 10 American women. One feature of the syndrome is unwanted facial and body hair (hirsutism). Researchers in the UK found that drinking spearmint tea twice a day for one month reduced abnormally high levels of testosterone in women with PCOS. “Spearmint has the potential for use as a helpful and natural treatment for hirsutism in PCOS,” they concluded in Phytotherapy Research.
Mint pairs well with these spices:
and complements recipes featuring:
Other recipes containing mint:
Roasted Tomato Soup with Fennel and Mint
Shellfish in Saffron Broth
Stress and anxiety. Korean researchers found that nursing students who inhaled peppermint and other essential oils had less stress and anxiety. Inhalation of peppermint and the other essential oils “could be a very effective stress management method,” concluded the researchers.
Postoperative nausea. US researchers studied 33 surgery patients and found that inhaling peppermint oil decreased postoperative nausea (a common problem) by 29 percent.
Breastfeeding. “Nipple pain and damage in breastfeeding mothers are common causes of premature breastfeeding cessation,” noted a team of researchers, writing in the International Journal of Breastfeeding. They studied 196 breastfeeding women, and found that those who used a topical treatment of peppermint water on their nipples were three times less likely to develop a cracked nipple and five times less likely to suffer from nipple pain.
Tuberculosis. Russian researchers found that adding peppermint oil to combined multidrug therapy for tuberculosis helped kill bacteria and improve symptoms. “This procedure may be used to prevent recurrences and exacerbations of pulmonary tuberculosis,” they concluded.
Chemotherapy-induced hot flashes. In a study by researchers in the UK, some women found a spray containing peppermint oil “extremely helpful” in lessening hot flashes induced by treatment for breast cancer.
Cancer. There are dozens of test tube and animal studies showing mint can battle cancer. Peppermint, spearmint, and compounds in them have been effective in slowing, stopping, or killing lung, prostate, liver, skin, stomach, bladder, brain, oral, and blood cancers.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A combination of emphysema and chronic bronchitis, this lung disease is the fourth leading cause of death in the US. Researchers in China found that spearmint oil decreased inflammation in the lungs of rats with experimentally induced COPD.
There are about 600 plants in the mint family.
Cavities and gum disease. Researchers in the Middle East found that peppermint oil killed the bacteria that cause tooth decay and helped stopped plaque buildup.
MINT IS A COMMON FLAVORING IN TOOTHPASTES AND MOUTHWASHS.
Hay fever. In the laboratory, researchers in Japan found that mint extracts stop the release of histamine, the chemical that causes allergic symptoms such as watery eyes, itching, and nasal congestion. “These results suggest that extracts [of mint] may be clinically effective in alleviating the nasal symptoms of allergic rhinitis [hayfever],” concluded the researchers.
Getting to Know Mint
Spearmint and peppermint have been used as an ingredient in toiletries and cosmetics for centuries, and today they’re a common flavoring in toothpaste and mouthwash. But mint didn’t flavor food until the 17th century.
The English were the first to eat mint and they’re still big fans—no English cook would serve lamb without the traditional mint sauce. Americans also favor mint with lamb, preferring mint jelly.
Countries in the eastern Mediterranean (Greece, Turkey, and the Mediterranean countries of the Middle East) and Southeast Asia use a lot of mint, as does India—fresh or dried, in sweet and savory dishes. (And, of course, in tea: black tea brewed with spearmint is a favored beverage in the Middle East and Africa.)
Grilled Lamb Patty Pockets with Cucumber Mint Sauce
This Middle-Eastern dish, perfect for a picnic, gives a spicy twist on the traditional cucumber mint sauce called tzatziki.
For the sauce:
1 cup plain yogurt
1 cup peeled and seeded cucumber, coarsely chopped
¼ cup fresh mint, tightly packed
1 tablespoon lime juice
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon sweet paprika
¼ teaspoon chili powder
¼ teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground white pepper to taste
For the patties:
1 pound lean ground lamb
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
½ cup diced onions
1 large egg, beaten lightly
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 tablespoon dried mint leaves, crumbled
1 teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup white sesame seeds, toasted
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 large pita breads
1 green bell pepper, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 cup pepperoncini peppers, sliced
1. To make the sauce: Place the yogurt in a fine mesh strainer set over a bowl and let it drain for about five minutes. Discard any liquid that drains from the yogurt.
2. Combine the cucumber, mint, lime juice, salt, cumin, paprika, chili powder, sugar, pepper, and drained yogurt in a food processor and blend until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use.
3. To make the lamb patties: Combine the ground lamb, breadcrumbs, onions, egg, garlic, olive oil, mint, allspice, cinnamon, sesame seeds, salt, and pepper and mix well.
4. Wet your hands and form into eight patties. Spray the grate of a grill with non-stick spray and heat to high. Grill the patties for two minutes on each side or until desired doneness. Place two patties on a pita, ladle with the sauce, and serve with the toppings.
Makes 4 servings.
In India, mint raita, made with cucumber and yogurt, is a popular condiment; it’s a cooling contrast with hot curries. Mint is a key spice in the Indian meatballs known as kofta, and in the spice mix chaat masala. Spearmint is ground with coconut, chiles, onion, and green mango for chutney. It is also added to spicy rice dishes called biryanis.
In North Africa, mint is always around when harissa, one of the world’s hottest condiments, is served. It is a popular spice in Moroccan stews called tagines, and in stuffed vine leaves, a Middle Eastern specialty popular in the US. It is an ingredient in the Egyptian spice mix dukkah. It is also an important spice in Iranian and Turkish cuisines. Mint is the spice that defines the popular Greek yogurt and cucumber sauce called tzatziki.
In Malaysia, mint is combined with turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, and shrimp paste to flavor spicy noodle broths called laksas. Mint is in Thai green curry paste. It’s used in Asian stir-fries.
Mint is also one of a bartender’s best friends. There are about five dozen drinks in the bartender’s repertoire that include mint leaves or mint-flavored alcohol, such as the liqueur crème de menthe, used to make stingers and grasshoppers. The most popular mint cocktail these days is a mojito, which includes citrus juice and tequila. And, of course, there is the German favorite peppermint Schnapps. On the first Saturday in May, when Churchill Downs hosts the Kentucky Derby, 1,000 pounds of fresh mint are mulled to make Mint Juleps, the classic derby drink, made with bourbon, simple syrup, bitters—and lots of mint.
How to Buy Mint
As already mentioned, the generic mint you get from the grocer is dried spearmint, but you can get dried peppermint from specialty spice shops or online. (You’ll find a list of spice retailers in the “Buyer’s Guide”.)
Dried mint (spearmint) is sometimes referred to as rubbed mint, because the leaves break into tiny pieces when the dried leaves are rubbed off the stems. It darkens when dried, becoming almost black. But the color doesn’t affect quality or freshness.
For freshness, check the aroma. Spearmint should smell warm and slightly pungent; peppermint, cool and slightly peppery.
In the Kitchen with Mint
Unless you’re into making specialty cakes and confections, there is little use for peppermint in the kitchen other than making tea. There are, however, many uses for spearmint.
Mint is a dominant flavor. For this reason, many cooks think mint doesn’t marry well with other spices. But chefs adept at Indian and Asian cuisine blend it with other strong spices with success.
Here are ideas to put more mint in your diet:
• Break mint sprigs in small pieces and freeze them with water in ice cube trays. Use the ice in iced tea, lemonade, and tonics.
• Sprinkle mint in butter spread for corn on the cob.
• Grind fresh or dried mint with a pinch of salt in a mortar and pestle and add it to olive oil and vinegar dressing.
• Add mint to cream-based soups and sauces.
• Add mint to pea soup and dishes featuring peas.
• Add mint to cold cucumber soup.
• Substitute mint for basil in a mint pesto.
• Make an untraditional chimichurri sauce by substituting mint for the parsley.
• For a change of taste, use mint instead of oregano or marjoram in eggplant and tomato dishes.