Smell of the week: peppermint (Mentha piperita)

With cold winter days and waning daylight, I love flavouring my soy latte with peppermint from time to time or having a hot chocolate laced with mint schnapps by the evening fire. This is an odd choice in the winter since the menthol in peppermint provokes a ‘cool’ feeling via cold-sensitive receptors in the skin (much the same way chili peppers provoke a ‘hot’ feeling without changes in temperature).

Indigenous to Europe, peppermint is actually a hybrid of Mentha aquatica andMentha spicata (spearmint). As a hybrid, it is sterile and spreads via it’s rhizomes (budding new plants off the roots). Medicinally, peppermint is used as an anti-spasmodic (digestive distress) and/or an anti-nausea (when inhaled). Menthol from mint plants is commonly used in cold medicines (and cigarettes) for soothing sore throats due to its anti-irritant properties. The menthone in peppermint is a natural pesticide (mainly for honey bees).

Major odor compounds are menthol (a primary compound), menthone, methyl acetate, menthofuran, and trace amounts of eucalyptol. Isolated menthol looks just like it smells–like icy shards (see left in the bowl).  Menthol comes from any member of the mint family but the one most commonly used for extraction is Mentha arvensis. Non-natural sources of menthol supplement those from the mint family of plants. Derived from menthol, menthyl esters are used in perfumery to improve, enhance, or modify fragrances. Peppermint oil odor can also be used to detect plumbing leaks!


Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

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