One of my favorite times of year here in the Treasure Valley is when all the mint farmers in the area harvest their crops. Talk about a breath of fresh air!
Idaho is one of the top three producers of mint in the United States, with about 13,000 acres of mint still grown by 100 farmers across the state. Mint has been grown here in Idaho since the early 1960’s, and continues to be a valuable agricultural product for the state. Like alfalfa, mint is a perennial plant, and can be harvested multiple times before needing to be plown into the soil and reseeded.
Peppermint is the main mint plant grown in Idaho, and is harvested in late July and early August. After being cut, it dries in the field for a few days before being chopped up and shipped off to a distillery to extract the mint oils from the plant. Steam is pumped into the distilling barrels to vaporize the oil, and the resulting water and oil mixture is then sent into a separator where the pure mint oil is separated out. The water is then recycled back to create steam for the next batch of mint.
The mint oil produced here in the United States has been known as the “champange” of mint. It is extremely high quality, with a pure, strong mint flavor. One teeny drop of US mint oil on your tounge will make your eyes water for a week! Mint oil from the distillery is sold to “handlers” who blend it with other mint oils from the US and oils from abroad to the specifications of the buyer.
90 percent of the mint oil produced is used by toothpaste, mouthwash, and gum manufacturers, with the last 10% used to flavor candy, ice cream, cookies, and pharmaceuticals. One drum of oil, which weighs about 400 pounds, will flavor approximately 400,000 tubes of toothpaste, or 5,000,000 sticks of gum, or 20,000,000 candies! Pure mint oil is so strong that one drop alone will flavor 2.5 tubes of toothpaste, 31.25 sticks of gum, or 125 mint candies!
Like today, mint has always been a popular herb. It has been found in Egyptian tombs, and has been used as part of traditonal Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Mint is an effective remedy for an upset stomach, as it stimulates the stomach to produce enzymes that move food along more quickly. Sniffing mint also has been shown in studies to improve concentration, and the scent also stimulates and invigorates body and mind.
Another interesting thing about mint is that it is a flavoring that cannot be reproduced in a laboratory. Mint oil is complex, with hundreds of different compounds, and the intensity and flavor varies from year to year, and even region to region due to differences in sun, water, pests, and other variables. While the number of mint farmers in the US has dropped dramatically due to the increase of foreign mint growers entering the market, the continued demand for high-quality, natural mint oil will ensure the continuation of these fragrant farms in the US.
Mint is also the stuff of legend! The mint genus is believed to have originated in the Mediterranean basin. Mint or Mintha, is named after the Greek nymph Minthes, who was turned into a mint plant by Proserpine, the jealous wife of Pluto, for casting covetous eyes on the philandering god of the underworld. Proserpine gained her revenge by turning Minthes into an herb where she would be forever trampled under people’s feet. To keep people treading on her forever, Proserpine gave Minthes eternal freshness and fragrance = MINT!
Mint has been a favorite herb for hundreds of uses for thousands of years. Mint reminds us of both summer (mint lemonade, mint juleps!) and winter (candy canes, peppermint hot chocolate!). Mint leaves can liven up salads, desserts, and drinks, and scent your home. Support your US mint growers, and treat yourself to something minty-fresh today!