Peppermint is a wintertime standard that reminds many of the winter holiday season because of the delicious holiday treats such as candy canes and peppermint bark. However, peppermint is used for more than just holiday candy. It has been used for centuries by different cultures for its medicinal and culinary properties by ancient civilizations and modern societies alike. Two main versions of peppermint, peppermint oil and peppermint extract contain similar properties and are used for similar purposes.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita L.)
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), peppermint is an herb that is a hybrid of water mint and spearmint. Peppermint leaves have been used for gastrointestinal disorders and other medicinal purposes. The whole leaf of the peppermint herb has been used as a flavoring for food and beverages as well as a garnishment for dishes.
Peppermint oil is obtained via steam distillation from fresh peppermint leaves. Peppermint oil can be used in food as a flavoring or taken in capsule form to treat specific medical conditions. Peppermint oil naturally contains menthol, menthone and menthyl esters, and thus was found suitable for use in such products as toothpaste, chewing gum, cigarettes and shampoo. Peppermint is an essential oil, and as such it is potent, so only a small amount of oil is needed for many uses.
Peppermint extract is the less potent derivative from the peppermint herb. It is extracted from peppermint oil via alcohol distillation and is less potent than its parent oil. The extract is mostly used in cooking to add a minty flavor to foods. A favorite during the winter season, peppermint extract is used to make baked goods and candies. As with peppermint oil, peppermint extract is also used in beauty products such as soaps and shampoos for its aromatic properties. Many people find the smell of peppermint pleasing and relaxing.
Both peppermint oil and peppermint extract are used for medicinal purposes. The menthol found in both the oil and extract is attributed to giving peppermint oil and peppermint extract their medicinal properties of reducing itching, inflammation and to sooth sore throat irritation. Peppermint oil has strong scientific evidence to support its use in treating coughs, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome and tension headaches as well as being an antispasmodic for the colon, esophagus and intestines.
Peppermint oil is four times as potent as peppermint extract and should only be used in small amounts. It is the low potency of peppermint extract that makes it more widely used for cooking. Peppermint oil is safe in small doses, however, allergic reactions, rashes, mouth sores, chemical burns, eye irritation and lung injury have been associated with peppermint oil use. Menthol, which is found in both the oil and extract, may be deadly and can possibly cause brain, skin and kidney damage. If inhaled, menthol can cause adverse reactions such as confusion, dizziness, nausea and muscle weakness.