Why Mint Tastes Cold

Daven Hiskey August 20, 2010 12
mintToday I Found Out why mint tastes cold.

Similar to why peppers taste hot, what’s going on here is there is a chemical in mint, menthol, which is tricking the brain into thinking that the area the menthol is applied to is cold; even though in fact, it’s the same as it was before.  More specifically,  menthol binds with cold-sensitive receptors in your skin; these receptors contain things called “ion channels”, in this case TRPM8.  The menthol makes these much more sensitive than normal, so they trigger and you feel a cold sensation, even though everything is more or less the same temperature as before.

This extra sensitivity is why when you eat peppermint, which has a relatively high level of menthol, and then you breathe in deeply through your mouth, your mouth feels extra cold.  Your cold receptors are reacting much more strongly than they normally would to the air which is cooler than the inside of your mouth.

Menthol is a compound classically obtained from various mint plants, though now is often synthetically produced due to the extreme high demand for menthol in a variety of products.  Menthol is a waxy, crystalline substance that is somewhat clear or white.  Interestingly, it is actually solid at room temperature and melts just a few degrees above room temperature.

Now for an experiment: Take a Jalapeno pepper and an Altoids Peppermint and eat them at the same time.  What happens?  … Seriously, someone want to try this and report back?  Given that the capsaicin in peppers and the menthol in mint are both effectively fooling the brain into perceiving hot and cold using similar ion channels, despite no actual change in physical temperature, it would seem like that the two may well cancel one another out in the brain (how can one feel hot and cold coming from more or less the same receptors?); or at the least, one would think it would produce a very unique sensation.  So do they cancel each other out or does one win-out over the other?

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Bonus Menthol Facts:

  • Menthol can be used in solid form as “mineral ice”, as a substitute for real ice, if none is around.  As far as your brain is concerned, the drink you drink with the menthol is cold, even though it might actually be warm.  Makes for handy “icing” of your drinks on camping trips.
  • Mint leaves or mint oil containing high levels of menthol will also help repel mosquitoes and can even do more than just repel them; it has been shown that mint oil can actually kill the mosquitoes.
  • Menthol is very effective for providing short term relief for sore throats and other minor mouth and throat irritations.
  • Menthol is also effective at reducing muscle aches and pains, which is why it’s used in products like “IcyHot”.
  • Menthol was successfully isolated from mint by the Japanese over 2000 years ago, but has only been isolated in the western world since the 1770s.
  • Menthol is also used to treat sunburns, as it provides a cooling sensation (often used in conjunction with aloe).
  • Menthol is added to some cigarettes to reduce the throat and sinus irritation caused by smoking so that you can ignore even more warning signs from your body that you should really stop smoking.
  • Menthol works as a low level pesticide.

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12 Comments »

  1. Jailbreak August 20, 2010 at 11:01 am - Reply

    Menthol Cigs taste colder as well…thanks for the info

  2. Fayetteville Video August 20, 2010 at 11:03 am - Reply

    VERY interesting about the mint! And you have me wanting to try the mint/pepper combo. I’ll let you know if I do.

  3. Nerf Jihad August 20, 2010 at 5:15 pm - Reply

    I tried the Jalapeno + Altoids thing in a middle school science class. It tasted awful, but felt really strange. I’d recommend it if you figure out how to avoid actually tasting it.

  4. Steph August 21, 2010 at 9:31 am - Reply

    I really want mint chocolate now….dammit.

  5. odboy24 August 27, 2010 at 10:04 pm - Reply

    I now know why mint tastes cold!

  6. Norich December 28, 2010 at 11:19 pm - Reply

    I wouldn’t be trying to use menthol crystals as icecubes, it would probably kill you.

    The msds for pure menthol shows
    “Toxic. Estimated fatal dose, average human, is 2 g. General gastrointestinal upset can occur with pain, vomiting, vertigo, drowsiness and coma. Death from respiratory failure can result in cases of severe poisoning. ”
    see,
    http://www.jtbaker.com/msds/englishhtml/m1131.htm
    or the wikka page at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menthol
    fro more information.
    So I’d stick to regular mints and such.

  7. ibo July 11, 2011 at 11:26 pm - Reply

    cool…..good to know!!!

  8. Chris October 28, 2011 at 12:16 pm - Reply

    Then I wonder why chocolate tastes warm J/K !!

  9. E.S. August 29, 2013 at 2:00 am - Reply

    In case anyone’s still reading, I should share the story of a museum exhibit I heard about, where you could grab a pipe which had both hot and cold water flowing through it (the two streams were mixed about an inch above, and hadn’t fully reached equilibrium). It produces an extremely uncomfortable burning sensation, because the only time the heat and cold sensory neurons are both activated naturally is when the heat or cold is so intense that the signal “overflows”. You have to exert a lot of will just to keep your hand on the pipe.

    If anyone still wants to do the experiment I’d be interested to know how it goes.

    • cw January 3, 2014 at 12:49 pm - Reply

      If I were to guess, the “uncomfortable” sensation is because your brain is confused, similar to a common cause of motion sickness. Some people can ride on any rollercoaster, but get carsick if they try reading in a car. It’s because the book moves with them, and they eyes are telling the brain, “we are not moving” but your inner ear feels the moving sensations and says “yes we are.” Result? Your brain pitches a fit and you feel sick. Wonder if it’s a similar thing going on if your brain hears “It’s hot!” “No, it’s cold!” from parts of the body is very close proxmity to each other (the ion channels).

  10. Ray March 18, 2014 at 8:45 am - Reply

    I thought the capsaicin in peppers burned because of the acidic content, not because it was fooling the heat receptors in your tongue. There’s a difference between an acid burning you, which can actually increase the temperature in your mouth, and your heat receptors being fooled. If I’m right then a jalapeño+altoids shouldn’t be anything but a cooling sensation that leaves you burning in pain, it shouldn’t confuse your brain too much.

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