Peppermint is really a sub variety or a plant that is part of the larger mint genus of plants. It forms a subset of the larger mint collection of plants. Depending on how discriminating you are, there can be as little as 13 mint species or 24.
What makes this really challenging is the fact that peppermint is actually just a cross between different mint varieties, so it’s not even a pure mint sub variety. It’s kind of like a wild offshoot of mentha piperita, which is its larger variety. But when you look at the actual plants that gave rise to the commercial version of peppermint, it can actually be traced to mint variety spearmint and watermint. Peppermint has a much higher menthol content than its spearmint parent. Interestingly, watermint has no menthol at all.
Mint, on the other hand, is just the larger grouping of all plants that share the strong flavor, the same general leaf shape, as well as certain flowering qualities of the up to 24 different species that make up the mint genus.
Think of the designation “mint” like the designation “luxury sedan”. When you look closer, there are of course many different makes and models of luxury sedans. You have your Daimler-Chrysler-Mercedes Benz. There’s also the ever-popular BMW, and of course, the Lexus, which isn’t too shabby.
They are all within the family of luxury cars and they share quite a wide range of characteristics. If you sit inside a top of the line Mercedes Benz, you would know that you are inside a luxury car. That’s the same kind of impression you get when you sit inside a 7-Series BMW luxury sedan.
By the same token, when you try watermint, peppermint, spearmint, sweetmint, and other varieties of mint, you can easily tell the differences, but are also reminded of the aroma, the overall flavor profile, and the general leaf shape and size that unites this plant genus.
To simplify things, “mint” is the general or umbrella term referring to the different varieties belonging to the Mentha genus, when talking about the plants. They all share some common properties that define them as being a mint even though they each have their own unique qualities.
These qualities are what differentiate them from one another. Some have qualities that make them stand out. Peppermint is one such standout from that group, having a strong menthol taste and aroma, and is one of the most popular mints.
To avoid confusion, when you hear a product or recipe described as having mint without mentioning the specific variety like peppermint or whatever mint, it usually refers to spearmint.
General Characteristics of the Mint Genus
All mint types can thrive just about anywhere they’re planted. They grow and spread fast and quickly form into patches. They love sunlight and are somewhat tolerant to drought.
While providing many medicinal benefits, they’re also known to have powerful flavors and aromas. That’s why they’re favorite herbal ingredients in many cuisines.
Can you imagine the taste of spaghetti sauce without oregano, pesto without basil, or your mint julep without spearmint? Did you know that thyme, rosemary, basil, marjoram, lemon balm, and sage are mints?
As for scents, the Lamiaceae mints they’re used in soaps, perfumes, cosmetics, household cleaners and air fresheners. Arguably Lavender is the most famous fragrant herb. Yes it’s also a mint!
Uses of Peppermint
If bought directly from stores, peppermint comes in the form of fresh or dry leaves and powder. It’s rich in menthol and has a higher menthol taste than other mints like spearmint. Many use it often as a flavoring ingredient in meals, desserts, sweets, or as caffeine-free tea. Its essential oil is concentrated and distilled in steam for use in rubbing oils, tinctures, creams, and salves.
In traditional forms of remedy, peppermint is popular in helping treat a wide number of conditions. It’s known to help ease anxiety related to depression, relieve headaches, muscle and nerve pain, menstrual pain, and even itching. People also use it to treat nausea and vomiting, as well as several gastrointestinal disorders like indigestion, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and even flatulence.
Points of Difference Between Mint and Peppermint
Since both spearmint and peppermint belong to the same genus, they share very similar properties, especially when comparing their appearance, flavor, uses, and how they’re grown.
In addition to classification differences, the big difference between peppermint and mint is fragrance and taste strength. If you’re looking for a very strong minty taste, go with peppermint.
Peppermint has been used for therapeutic purposes precisely because of its strong aromatic qualities and its distinctive taste. It is also used as a topical oil. Either it is boiled down into an oil or its extract is compressed and mixed into other plant oils to produce a very fragrant topical concoction.
Mint, on the other hand, is more mellow than peppermint and is more often used for food and culinary purposes. Its distinct taste is featured in Vietnamese spring rolls, for example. It also goes well with certain types of soup. A lot of the times, mint leaves are dried and crushed and added into a spice mix.
Peppermint, on the other hand, is often used for fragrances as well as certain types of recipes that require a very strong mint taste. Peppermint is also mixed with other herbs as a flavoring for chewing gum.
Peppermint contains a higher concentration of menthol at 40%, while its parent spearmint only has less than 1%. If a dish or dessert calls for a stronger minty flavor, you can’t go wrong with peppermint. However, if you’re looking for a more subtle hint of mint with a sweeter flavor profile, spearmint will do the trick and not overwhelm your food.
The thing to understand is that if a food or an item has a prominent menthol flavor, it’s more likely to use peppermint. Spearmint would be used more to enhance the taste of a dish, and not dominate it.