The Difference Between Peppermint and Spearmint

Garden & Plants

Table of Contents: Peppermint vs. Spearmint / Peppermint (Mentha piperita) / Spearmint (Mentha spicata) / Similarities Between Peppermint and Spearmint / Differences Between Peppermint and Spearmint (Occurrence of  Peppermint and Spearmint, Look, Menthol Concentration, Taste, Nutrition Facts) / Conclusions

Mint is, in fact, a genus of herbal plants of which there are thought to be roughly 15 different species. Of those 15, two emerged dominant over time in culinary uses - spearmint and peppermint. Both  are members of the same family and thus have rather similar properties as it relates to appearance, cultivation, flavor, and use.

The most striking difference is the amount of menthol – an organic compound found in all Menthas responsible for the bulk of mint’s sweet, sometimes spicy, flavor. Although not always thought to be, peppermint is actually a hybrid of spearmint and water mint. It is the surly, punchy and powerful member of the Metha family, and the intensity of it’s “minty” flavor borders on spiciness, earning it a fitting name.  In some cases the two can be used interchangeably, but because of peppermint’s concentrated flavor you’re likely to find it in foods and items looking to feature the flavor prominently, like candy, tea or even a minty mojito.

Both spearmint and peppermint are indigenous to Europe and the Middle East but are now found most places and can be grown quite easily in gardens or indoor pots. Because of this, there is little need (or excuse) to use dried mint which pales in comparison to freshly grown.

Beyond cooking, both peppermint and spearmint are said to have medicinal properties in stomach ailments and topical relief from muscle pain and itching. Because of it’s higher level of menthol, peppermint is used more broadly for these purposes and the herb’s oil is so potent it is even known to repel some pest insects, including mosquitos and have uses in organic gardening. The oil, also used in cooking, especially for candies and desserts can be found in most grocery stores.

There are almost endless culinary reasons to have mint or mint oil laying around and a simple mint syrup will raise your home bar game to seriously heightened levels.

When it comes to shared characteristics, peppermint and spearmint both have serrated leaves, produce pink or light purple flowers, spread via underground stems called stolons, and contain menthol, the chemical compound behind that familiar cooling sensation. However, there’s a pretty significant discrepancy between their levels of menthol, which helps explain the flavor differences between the two types.

While peppermint’s menthol content is a whopping 40 percent, spearmint contains just 0.05 percent. Therefore peppermint is especially pungent and even spicy (hence the „pepper“ in its name). Spearmint, on the other hand, contains a compound called carvone, which gives it a much subtler, sweeter flavor. Because peppermint has such a strong taste, it’s usually the main focus of whatever dish or drink it’s in think candy canes or peppermint tea. If you’re cooking something savory with a variety of other herbs, you’re better off using spearmint, whose sweetness will offset the blend of flavors without overpowering them.

The two mints are similar enough that you can substitute one for another if your grocery store doesn’t happen to carry both. Although confusing which type of mint to use in your recipe won’t necessarily ruin your creation, there are differences between the two in terms of flavor and uses.

Peppermint is simply the aromatic leaves of a plant belonging to the mint family. Peppermint also refers to the old-world plant that yields peppermint leaves and oil. Peppermint belongs to the genus Mentha. The species is Piperita and is a cross between watermint and spearmint. As a cooling agent, it can be used to change the temperatures of the skin upon touch or the mouth.

Peppermint is an incredibly pungent, almost spicy herb. And though peppermint is perhaps the better known of the two, it’s actually a natural hybrid of spearmint and water mint. This explains why it is so much more potent than its counterpart. Because peppermint is a mix of two types of mint, it contains a higher content of menthol 40%. Menthol is the chemical ingredient that creates that recognizable and much loved cooling effect on the mouth.

You might have noticed that peppermint typically only makes a prominent appearance in your grocery aisles during the holidays (bring on the peppermint bark, candy canes and peppermint patties), but its refreshing flavor is perfect to enjoy year round, and not even necessarily in the kitchen. Peppermint serves a whole slew of medicinal purposes. It’s known to soothe sore throats and achy muscles, stop runny noses and relieve stress. Its strong flavor is best suited for sweet dishes, especially those with chocolate, which is why your fondest memories of the mint are probably when it’s crushed on top of a ooey-gooey lava cake or swirled into a heartwarming mug of hot cocoa.

Spearmint is widely known as a common garden mint that is commonly used as a culinary herb. It is also used to add flavor to chewing some gum types.

Spearmint belongs to the Spicata species. It naturally occurs which means it’s not a plant hybrid. As for menthol concentration, it only has a 0.05 percent.

Compared to peppermint, spearmint has a delicate flavor and fragrance that is often described as sweet. It gets its flavor from the chemical ingredient carvone, which is much subtler than the aforementioned menthol and doesn’t evoke the same cooling sensation. Spearmint’s uses are primarily restricted to the culinary and commercial realms (think shaving creams and toothpaste). But it does have some notable healing effects, such as the ability to alleviate nausea and hiccups.

The herb’s most well-known use is in candies, so it might come as a surprise that in cooking, spearmint is often found in savory recipes, the opposite of peppermint. Whether it’s blended into a tzatziki sauce drizzled over a rack of lamb, carefully folded into a pork- and veggie-packed spring roll or muddled into a refreshing mojito, spearmint is sure to let the dish’s other flavors shine alongside it, which is why it’s a favorite ingredient of many chefs around the world.

Peppermint and Spearmint have some similarities in addition to differences. They are similar in that they are both used for:

  • Cooking
  • Medicinal purposes
  • Making of great essential oils.
  • Used in making medicinal tea.

Both mints have spear-shaped leaves and square stems. Also, Peppermint and Spearmint are indigenous to the Middle East and Europe. However, they can also be found in most places now, especially indoor pots and gardens.

Occurrence of  Peppermint and Spearmint:

Spearmint occurs naturally while peppermint is a hybrid mint. The latter is a fusion of spearmint and watermint.

Look:

Leaves: Spearmint leaves have a spear shape that is larger compared to the thinner peppermint counterpart. The leaves of spearmint appear oblong, lanced, and rounded while the leaves of peppermint are toothed and sharp-looking. Moreover, peppermint leaves might have a purple/dark red veins (even stronger on the back) missing to the green-only spearmint ones. Peppermint younger leaves might have also had purple edges.

Spearmint leaves have sharper edges, and they have more tiny hair compared to the peppermint counterpart. Moreover, spearmint is, in general, more rugose than their peppermint counterpart.

Both spearmint and peppermint grow leaves in pairs. Each leaf in the pair is opposite to each other. The next pair of leaves in the stem is in the opposite direction to the previous, creating a cross shape if you look at the steam of spearmint or peppermint from the top.

Stems: Peppermint steams are purple in color. Spearmint has green stems with occasionally a light purple hue, but way less prominent than in peppermint.

Both spearmint and peppermint have square stems and some hair (although slightly more on spearmint) around them. This is a feature common to many species of the Mentha genus.

Flower: Spearmint and peppermint have flowers of similar structure. Each flower is just a few millimeters long, and they grow in small bunches in a cone-shaped arrangement.

Spearmint flowers can be pink or white, while peppermint is often pink and slightly darker than their spearmint counterpart.

Menthol Concentration:

Of the two, Spearmint has the least concentration of menthol at 0.05 percent. Peppermint, on the other hand, has a 40 percent concentration of menthol.

Taste:

How to surely identify spearmint from peppermint? The easiest way to identify spearmint from peppermint is to eat one (or better half) of their leaf. Indeed, peppermint has a way stronger and more pungent flavor than spearmint. Some describe such taste as those of the sweet minty candy.

On the other hand, spearmint has a more sweet and less bold flavor that actually many prefer to peppermint as way more gentle. This great difference in taste is due to the very low content of menthol (on this more later) compared to peppermint.

If you have tasted dried mint, forget it. The fresh peppermint leaves have a way stronger and “denser” flavor. If you want to know more about the differences between dry and fresh herbs, you can have a look at the article below!

Nutrition Facts:

Spearmint and peppermint, as you might guess from their different flavor, have different nutritional content. Below you can find a table summarising the major nutritional fact for 100g of fresh herb.

Nutrition fact for 100g of fresh herbs
Nutrition FactPeppermintSpearmint
Calories (kcal)7044
Carbohydrates (% daily intake)5%3%
Proteins (% daily intake)7%7%
Vitamin A (% daily intake)85%81%
Vitamin C (% daily intake)53%22%
Folate (% daily intake)29%26%
Iron (% daily intake)28%66%

Hence, is peppermint or spearmint more nutritious? Peppermint has double the amount of calories and vitamin C than spearmint. On the other hand, only half of the iron content. Peppermint carries way higher vitamin A and menthol.

Even though peppermint and spearmint belong to the same mint family, it is apparent they have many distinguishing characteristics. From their appearance to leaves properties, uses, and flavors, it should be easy to identify one from each other now. All in all, they share most properties which would make them get interchanged and used in place of each other.

Spearmint and Peppermint, at first glance, can be confused one with another. However, at close inspection, their leaf shape, color, and hairiness make them distinguishable. However, the taste is the easiest way to identify them. Indeed, a peppermint leaf will taste way stronger than its spearmint counterpart.

Due to its stronger taste, peppermint is often used just in deserts and tea. Peppermint is mainly for baking while spearmint for cooking. Its high methanol content makes such herb ideal for its essential oils, quite widespread in the market and online retailers mainly for its relaxing and calming scent.

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