Flavor Investigator: Peppermint

Red and white candy canes fill the room with holiday spirit. Not only are they beautiful to look at but delicious to eat. Traditional candy canes come in the flavour of peppermint, a popular herb which belongs to the genus Mentha and the family Lamiaceae. Peppermint, is botanically known as Mentha piperita L. and is found to grow wild in Europe, North America and Australia.  There is some dispute about the original cultivation place of peppermint as some evidence indicates the origins began in ancient Egypt. Others have claimed peppermint was first cultivated by the Greeks and Romans. Overall, peppermint can be described as tasting green, minty, cooling and having a sweet candy menthol-like nuance.

The Brief Folklore of Candy Canes

To get you in the holiday spirit I thought it would be fun to examine the history of candy canes and how this minty treat came to be. It is believed that candy canes originated in 1670 in Cologne, Germany. To quiet down the children living at a choirmaster’s church he asked a local candy maker for sugar sticks. The iconic “hook” found on candy canes are a result of the choirmaster specifically asking for the sticks to be turned into the shape of a cane. The hook is meant to look like a shepard’s cane such as those possessed by the sheparads who visited the infant Jesus, in the Christian story of the birth of Christ. However, this is just a folktale with little evidence to back it up.

One thing for certain is that the iconic stripes on a candy cane are a modern invention.  Christmas cards during the 19th century display fully white candy canes. In the early 20th century however Christmas cards started to depict red and white candy canes. However, no one is able to put a finger on who exactly led this charge.  Some believe the stripes are a result of the candy maker Bob McCormack in the 1920s as the company became the leading peppermint candy cane producer during the late 1950s. The use of peppermint in candy dates back to the Renaissance as peppermint is known for its ability to ease and upset stomach

The Difference Between Spearmint and Peppermint

It is not uncommon for individuals to generalize the flavour of “mint” but if you want to become a flavour expert it is important that you know the differences between mints. Spearmint and peppermint are both types of mints but they have very unique flavour profiles. Spearmint (Mentha spicate) also known as garden mint is milder of the two making it ideal for savoury dishes. It further can be described as being sweet, smooth, carvone and minty.  It contains only 0.05% mentanol, meaning it does not provide the same cooling sensation you would associate with peppermint. Sub-varieties of spearmint include pineapple mint, known for its pineapples notes and sweeter flavour; and apple mint known for its green apples notes.

Flavour Compounds Found in Peppermint

The first thing you will notice when you take a bite out of a candy cane is a cooling sensation. This cooling sensation is due the presence of menthol and similar compounds found in the same family. Menthol is an alcohol known for its waxy, crystalline appearance and ability to relieve minor throat irritations. Peppermint also contains many other isomers of menthol such as neomenthol. Another chemical compound found in peppermint is pulegone, a monoterpene ketone that is minty, sulfurous, fruity black currant and raspberry with fresh green leafy nuances.  It can also be found in the leaves and flowering tops of other members of the family Lamiaceae. Also contributing to peppermints “minty” flavour is pinene. As the name suggests, pinene tastes like fresh pine, is terpy and resinous with a slightly minty, camphoraceous profile.

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