Photo © Steven Foster
Peppermint is one of the most popular herbs used in today’s society.1 A summer growing, perennial aromatic herb, peppermint is a hybrid plant of Mentha spicata (spearmint) and M. aquatica (watermint). The plant grows wild throughout Europe and North America in moist areas and is thought to be of Mediterranean origin. There are records indicating that ancient Egyptians cultivated peppermint. The leaves and stems of peppermint contain volatile oils that give the plant its pungent odor and taste. The oil contains menthol which is responsible for the sensation of coolness that is characteristic of peppermint.1
History and Cultural Significance
The genus Mentha was named after the Greek nymph Minthe.2 Legend has it that Minthe was the lover of Pluto, the God of the Greek underworld. When Pluto’s wife heard of the affair, she murdered Minthe in a fit of rage and jealousy. In remembrance of Minthe, Pluto brought her back to life as a fragrant plant. The name peppermint is from the species name piperita meaning “peppery” which distinguishes peppermint from other forms of mint. Peppermint has a long history of unique uses. Aristotle referenced peppermint in his writings as an aphrodisiac. Alexander the Great forbade his soldiers to have peppermint because it was thought to promote erotic thoughts and deplete soldiers of the desire to fight. Arabs used peppermint in their social drinks as a virility stimulant and Romans would spread peppermint on their floors to help get rid of pests.2
Peppermint has many modern uses worldwide.3 Leaf preparations are made from either fresh or dried leaves; while the oil is distilled from freshly harvested sprigs.3 Many think that peppermint is too intense for subtle dishes but it is commonly found in tea, chocolate, confections, bubble gum, jellies, and sauces.4 It can also be added to chilled soups or rice on warm days to help cool down the body.4
The plant has been used medicinally as a tonic for preventing gas and relieving spasms, and other stomach ailments.5 It also has been used to assist in alleviating tension headaches.3 Today, the peppermint plant is commonly added to cough and cold remedies because of its high menthol content, which provides a sensation of coolness and easier breathing.6
The tobacco industry uses peppermint oil largely as a flavoring and for its high concentration of menthol and cooling sensation.5 Due to its unique fragrance, peppermint is often found in soaps, detergents, creams, lotions, and perfumes.5
Pharmacological studies have been conducted to evaluate peppermint’s possible effects on various gastrointestinal and neurological conditions such as dyspepsia and tension headaches.3 New clinical trials are evaluating peppermint as an aromatherapy agent for relieving nausea.7 Peppermint’s antispasmodic and antidiarrheal effects are topics of continued research.8
The world production of peppermint is more than 4000 tons per year with the USA accounting for over 90% of the production.9 There has been a steady increase in demand for peppermint because of its many uses and because of recent expansion into the Asian market. The plant requires certain environmental conditions that greatly limit suitable areas for cultivation. Because of the high demand and climatic constraints, it is becoming common for peppermint crops to be harvested twice each season (double harvesting) in the United States. Double harvesting can lead to rootstock depletion and can diminish the quality of oil produced. Horticulturists have also encountered a growing pest infestation that is leading to excessive leaf loss and consequently lower oil quality.9
1 Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J, editors. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; Newton, MA: Integrative Medicine Communications; 2000.
2 Onstad D. Whole Foods Companion. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.; 1996.
3 Blumenthal M, Hall T, Goldberg A, Kunz T, Dinda K, Brinckmann J, et al, editors. The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; 2003.
4 Wood R. The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia. Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books; 1999.
5 Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Foods, Dugs, and Cosmetics. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 1996.
6 Bruneton J. Pharmacognosy: Phytochemistry Medicinal Plants. 2nd ed. Paris: Lavoisier Publishing; 1999.
7 Anderson LA, Gross JB. Aromatherapy with peppermint, isopropyl alcohol, or placebo is equally effective in relieving postoperative nausea. J Perianesth Nurs. 2004;19(1):29-35.
8 Micklefield G, Jung O, Greving I, May B. Effects of intraduodenal application of peppermint oil (WS(R) 1) and caraway oil (WS(R) 1520) on gastroduodenal motility in healthy volunteers. Phythother Res. 2003;17(2):135-40.
9 Peterson L, Bienvenu F. Peppermint Oil. The New Rural Industries: a Handbook for Farmers and Investors. Available at: http://www.rirdc.gov.au/pub/handbook/peppermint.html. Accessed March 31, 2004.