Mint is valued all over the world for its menthol scent and taste. It provokes an invigorating effect on the senses, and is commonly employed in cooking to add flavour to dishes, and as a garnish for desserts. It is also commonly used in medicine, aromatherapy, and commercial goods like toothpaste, soap, mouthwash, balms, chewing gum, and various creams.
Being able to name or recognize all the different types of mint can be a daunting task indeed. According to the University of California at Davis Extension, there are over 600 varieties of the herb. Mentha, Latin for mint, supports foliage ranging from very minute, to broad, and a variety that has a tinge of red leaves. All of these plants come in a wide array of flavours and scents. While the origins of the herb have been lost over the ages, mint is a hardy plant, as can be seen from the fact that it has become naturalized all over the planet in a variety of forms. Below are some of the more common types of mints.
- Peppermint, or Mentha x piperita, is perhaps the best known variety of mint. It is a vigorous herb that yields the classic mint smell when the leaves are rubbed, giving off a distinctive candy-cane aroma with subtle sweetness. It is good for making tea, desserts, candy, and custards. Both the dry and fresh forms are equally good for calming an upset stomach, relieving aches and cold symptoms, freshening breath, and lifting spirits.
- Spearmint, or Menthe spicata, is most commonly used for flavouring chewing gum and toothpaste. This variety is frequently found growing wild in Northern American. The dark green leaves with pointy ends and teeth like edges make for good looking foliage. It is known to drive away aphids, or plant lice, making it a good companion for roses.
- It is the most frequently used variety in the kitchen and makes a good addition to salads, savoury or sweet dishes. Medicinally it acts as an antispasmodic and is good for treating different types of nausea.
- Mentha piperita (chocolate mint) is a close relative of spearmint. It can be easily recognized due to its purple stem with cocoa smell and taste- minus the calories. For people who enjoy chocolate with a crisp mint flavour, this is the perfect variety for refreshing the palate after a rich meal. It can also be used to make teas, or added to fresh fruit, and baked dishes.
- There is a large number of fruit flavoured mints like apple mint, lemon mint, orange mint, and lime mint to name a few. This variety of mints delivers the characteristic menthol taste with fruity undertones. It is good for adding to salads or making teas.
- The Corsican mint has the tiniest foliage among the mint plants, growing to only ¼ of an inch in length. The bright green leaves are ideal for covering grounds and creating a herbal landscape. When the foliage is walked upon, the scent of “crème de menthe” is released.
- Bowles is most commonly used in English cooking. The foliage is medium green coloured with hairy leaves that are circular in shape. It gives off a smell similar to that of apples combined with spearmint. The hairy leaves are not to everyone’s taste though.
History of Mint
Mint has existed since the dawn of civilization. The exact history can’t be traced, although it is believed that the plant is a native of the Mediterranean, and it was the Romans who were responsible for its spread, as it first emerged in Roman mythology. The name of the species ‘Mentha’ evolved from the beautiful fairy’s name ‘Minthe’ who was the object of Pluto’s (mythological ruler of the underworld) desires. When Pluto’s wife learned of his love for the pretty young nymph, in a rage she cursed Minthe and turned her into a lowly plant that would be tramped and crushed underfoot. While Pluto couldn’t undo the curse, he managed to soften it by making Minthe give off a sweet smell when she was trod upon. Hence, ‘Minthe’ became ‘Mentha’, the name of the entire species that has thrived ever since.
Greek mythology has a different story about mint. According to Greek legend, two strangers were passing through a village and were ignored by all the villagers. No one bothered to offer them food or water until eventually an elderly couple, Philemon and Baucis, offered to feed them. Before sitting down for their meal, the hosts cleansed the table with mint leaves to freshen it. It turned out that the gods Zeus and Hermes were masquerading as the strangers and so rewarded the couple’s hospitality with riches. Thus, mint became an icon for hospitality.
Mint has been valued as an aromatic herb since the medieval times. It was used to scent baths, and scattered around homes to freshen them. During the 18th century, mint was used as a remedy for everything from colic to digestive disorders, and it even made dogs bite! Colonists took mint to the New World to be used in teas for curing headaches, indigestion, heartburn, and insomnia. Since mint wasn’t taxed, it was also consumed for its good taste and pleasure.
Health Benefits of Mint
Mint oil is rather potent with loads of varied uses due to it numerous properties. Traditionally it was used to treat everything from simple ailments to gingivitis, spasms, irritable bowel syndrome, and rheumatism. It also relaxes muscles, and has antiviral and bactericidal traits. According to some archaeological verification, Greek athletes used mint leaves to relieve aching muscles, similar to the way it is used today in menthol-filled topical analgesics. Mint is a carminative (reduces intestinal cramping) and a counter irritant.
More recent investigations, conducted by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, indicate that mint tea may be a practical alternative to pharmaceutical medicines1. Making tea using one to two teaspoons of dried peppermint leaves and allowing it to seep for five minutes, can help to relieve an upset stomach and ease heartburn. Fresh leaves and tea bags work equally well. It is further believed that mint tea can enhance mental performance and keep one alert. The cool flavour and revitalizing aroma also helps to make one less anxious. Additionally, mint tea breaks up congestion to reduce coughing caused by allergies and colds. It behaves like an expectorant and aids in relieving dry coughs and sore throats. Finally, it eliminates bad breath due to smoking, eating onions or garlic, and drinking alcohol.
Nutritional Value of Mint
Mint is particularly rich in vitamin C and carotenes. Carotenes give plants their distinctive colours and are precursors to vitamin A. Beta-carotene is the best type of carotenes for human health. It has been shown to be beneficial for eye health and cardiovascular disease. A one hundred gram serving of mint provides 1620 micrograms of beta-carotenes. There are also 27 milligrams of vitamin C in a 100 gram serving of mint. Vitamin C is good for the immune system and repair of tissue. It is also associated with protection against certain types of cancer, like colon and rectal.
Mint also provides many essential minerals such as magnesium, copper, iron, potassium, and calcium. Calcium and magnesium are essential for bone health, and 100 grams of mint contain 60 milligrams of magnesium and 200 milligrams of calcium. Iron is a necessary element of the red blood cells, required to carry oxygen to all parts of the body. There are 15.6 milligrams of iron in every 100 grams of mint. The presence of vitamin C enhances absorption of iron by the body.
Mint leaves are beneficial for the skin, something not many people consider. They contain menthol which helps to increase the flow of blood to an area. It may also stop the growth of a skin pathogen known as staphylococcus aureus by nourishing the skin. Mint has been found to aid in the treatment of herpes simplex lesions. The essential oil in mint is a natural astringent, meaning it will shrink pores giving the skin a tighter feel and more youthful appearance. Mint leaves contain salicylic acid which is an exfoliate that gets rid of dead skin cells and opens pores. For this very reason, mint leaves can aide with acne treatment. Mixed with yogurt and oatmeal, mint leaves make an excellent face mask.
How to Use Mint
Fresh mint can cool, refresh, and brighten up everything from cocktails, to salads, and even rooms. Mint is most commonly used with vegetables like potatoes, eggplant, and carrots or corn, to add additional flavour. Mint can even be chopped and added to omelettes and scrambled eggs as flavour enhancer.
A few leaves of fresh mint can be added to the teapot to reduce the effects of tannin and caffeine. Sweet mint water is great way to refresh yourself on a hot summer afternoon. Just boil one litre of water and add a cup full of mint leaves. Allow to seep for about 30 minutes, strain and cool in the refrigerator. Now you have great tasting water to quench your thirst and help keep you hydrated throughout the day.
Here are some additional ways to use mint:
- Chop and toss onto roasted potatoes covered in a little olive oil and salt.
- Freeze mint leaves in ice cubes to make a unique drink presentation.
- Dried or fresh mint can be placed in corners of cupboards for a fresh smell and to repel insects.
- Mint leaves blended with lemon and olive oil, seasoned with salt and black pepper, makes for a great salad dressing.
- Allow four tablespoons of chopped fresh mint leaves to seep in one quart of boiling water, and chill in a refrigerator before straining. This mixture can then be kept in the fridge and used as a mouthwash.
- Toss chopped mint leaves into soups and stews.
- Chop excessive growth and use as mulch around the garden to repel insects.
Due to the many health benefits associated with mint leaves, there are now a number of studies being conducted to find proof and understand how the various compounds in the herb actually work. One study carried out at the University of Salford, in Manchester England, discovered that mint leaves appear to kill cancer cells. Typically, cancer treatments work by destroying the cancerous cells, but mint works by attacking the blood vessels in the tumour and depriving the cancerous cells of oxygen and thereby killing it. This type of treatment will have fewer side effects.