Everybody is familiar with the taste and smell of mint. It’s in your toothpaste, your mouthwash, gum, breath mints, and so many other things.
Just as mint is ubiquitous today, its notable properties made it a famous plant during ancient times. In ancient Greece and in Greek mythology, it was described as the hospitality plant. And in ancient Egypt, it was sometimes used as a form of currency (Uyterhoeven, 2014).
In this article, you will see some features of the mint plant. We will talk briefly about mint botany, aromatic metabolites, some mint-like plants, uses, and benefits.
The mint smell chemistry
One of mint’s famous properties is its refreshing smell. But there is interesting ongoing research in characterizing the minty smell more objectively. Some of the reasons for mint flavor and scent research are focused on detecting what scents are more preferred by the consumers.
Unlike other plant traits perceived by senses like vision, taste, and sound, the scent process hasn’t been as objectively analyzed.
For instance, researchers use very well-established color, flavors, and sound categories to quantify a study, but what about smell?
A research group in Bates College uses mathematics to describe the odor systematically (Castro et al 2013). Interestingly, these researchers created a smell classification system with ten different smells where the minty/peppermint smell was described as one of the categories.
Perhaps what’s more interesting than whether or not the minty smell can be quantified is the chemistry behind the aroma.
The main chemical component of mint oils is menthol and its oxidized relative, menthone.
These components are associated with the refreshing feeling in mint plants.
In the flavor industry, mint species are valued by their menthol content. In our bodies, menthol elicits a cool sensation by selectively activating the TRPM8 channel.
The TRPM8 channel is the primary molecular transducer of cold somatosensation in humans (Izquierdo et. al. 2021). Then, it was reported that menthol binds to TRPM8, activating the cold sensation in humans (Xu et. al. 2020).
Additionally, the mint market is growing fast (GrandView Research, 2019). Due to such high demand, menthol is now usually synthetically produced. Nowadays, many products use the synthetically made menthol for flavoring.
Innovation has led to the synthesis of a new compound, carboxamides. Carboxamides are being developed to make the cool feel of menthol last longer (Leffingwell et al 2014).
Not all mint smells minty, but it’s still mint
Not all mints have a minty smell. For instance, the pennyroyal plant (Mentha pulegium) smells like caraway and is used as insect repellants.
Others like banana mints (Mentha arvensis ‘Banana’) smell fruity while Mentha arvensis subsp. haplocalyx (also called heliotrope) smell sweet and flowery. Although they do not smell minty, these mint plants still have an aromatic essence and are still true mint plants.
Plants that smell like mint but aren’t
In contrast, plenty of plants have the classically minty smell, but aren’t actually mint plants.
The plant Tanacetum balsamita, also known as costmary, mentha coca, or roman mentha in some Latin countries, is a hardy plant that has been cultivated for its pleasant smell and medicinal properties.
It has been used to repel insects and give a fresh flavor during church services. Another plant known as mountain mint (Pycnanthemum pilosum) is used as a mint substitute in food and teas.
The Tagetes minuta plant, also known as mint marigold, is used to prepare medicinal teas. It is also used as an insect repellant.
The other two plants very closely related in minty smell to true mints are Pelargonium tomentosum (also known as peppermint geranium) and Pelargonium graveolens (known as mint rose). Both plants are used to flavor teas, desserts, jellies, and chocolate cakes. Mint rose has also been used for massage therapy.
Many other plants such as St. John’s mint (Micromeria brownei) and Jamaican peppermint (Satureja viminea), mint shrub (Elsholtzia stauntonii), anise mint or anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), and mint thyme (Thymus ‘Mint’) are used for flavoring meat, teas, salads and even for healing purposes.
Mint plants have been recognized for their healing properties since ancient times. Some reports describe the following health benefits:
The consumption of mint contributes to brain health. Recent studies showed that mint extracts and their derivatives have a neuroprotective potential and can target multiple events of Alzheimer’s disease.
The potential role of mint extracts and their derivatives as possible sources of treatments in managing Alzheimer’s disease has been previously reported (Hanafy et al 2020).
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease characterized by progressive cognitive and memory decline, affecting the life quality of the patients who suffer from it (Hanafy et al 2020).
Digestive tract health
Maybe one of the most well-known benefits of eating mints is how it benefits digestion, particularly irritable bowel syndrome (Alammar et al 2019).
Consuming peppermint oil reduces abdominal pain and helps treat irritable bowel syndrome. Of course, it’s best to consult a doctor when considering this approach.
Peppermint oil may have several mechanisms of action that aid digestion, including smooth muscle relaxation (via calcium channel blockade or direct enteric nervous system effects); visceral sensitivity modulation (via transient receptor potential cation channels); anti-microbial effects; anti-inflammatory activity, and modulation of psychosocial distress (Chumpitazi et al 2018). Peppermint oil has also been reported to affect the esophageal, gastric, small bowel, gallbladder, and colonic physiology.
Peppermint oil has a higher concentration of menthol (30‐55%) than other mints (Horváth and Ács, 2015). Because of that, peppermint oil is also used in the symptomatic treatment of coughs and colds. It is observed that it can relieve many bacterial, fungal, and viral infections when inhaled or applied in the form of a vapor balm.
Other issues such as sinus and lung congestion are also known to be treated with this oil (Ali et al 2015). The healing benefits also widely support in vitro studies that describe the antioxidant properties and bactericidal effects of the mint oil (Singh et al 2011).
Mint for all uses
In addition to freshening breath, mint is used in different forms as oil or fresh raw material to add flavor to foods and drinks. Mint can be used to give a fresh taste to chocolate cakes, ice cream, mojito cocktails, and many others.
Spearmint is the variety commonly used in food preparations, while peppermint, due to its high menthol content, is preferred for healing many health issues, particularly digestive.
Furthermore, peppermint oil is used in aromatherapy (Ali et al 2015) and helps in respiratory diseases (Acs et al 2016).
Interestingly, mint oil was recently evaluated to determine the symptomatic management of COVID-19 (Valussi et al 2021). Researchers concluded menthol was not recommended because it reduced the breathing process. Patients later felt as if they could not get enough air in their lungs as a result (also known as dyspnea).
The authors of the study explained that menthol could cause COVID-19 infected patients to underestimate the severity of their illness and delay medical attention as a result.
The mint plant
If you are outdoors and find mint plants along the way, smell the gentle aroma of wild mints' fresh and sweet scent and enjoy a cleansing and refreshing memory all day...
Mint plants belong to the Lamiaceae family, and although there are many varieties of mint plants, we can cluster them all under the genus Mentha.
Spearmint and peppermint, for example, are two of the more common mint varieties used to flavor many products.
Less common varieties include wild mint, chocolate mint, and water mint.
Mint plants possess erect, branching stems and opposite leaves, usually with a serrated margin. The leaves contain tiny hairs (also called trichomes) where the aromatic metabolites are stored.
These plants produce a beautiful terminal flower spike which can be white or purple depending on the variety.
If you’re thinking about planting mint, just know that mint plants spread quickly. If you do not manage them, they can invade your backyard. That is why gardeners tend to grow them in medium or large containers and prune often to keep them under control.
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