by Maanvi Singh, The Salt at NPR Food (12/19/14)
Even in the coldest months, we relish the refreshing, icy taste of peppermint — in seasonal treats like peppermint bark, peppermint schnapps, even peppermint beer.
We have the chemical menthol to thank for that deliciously cool mouth-feel of peppermint. And scientists now know that menthol actually tricks our brains and mouths into the cool sensation because menthol activates the same receptor on nerve endings that's involved in sensing cold, says David McKemy, a neurobiologist at the University of Southern California.
As McKemy explains in a video about peppermint out this month from USC, thanks to this neat trick of nature, researchers were able to use menthol to better understand how our nervous system senses and reacts to cold. His team found a protein which is "a trigger on cold sensing nerve fibers to send an electrical signal to the brain to let you know that you're feeling cold."
"It's incredible how nature and plants have evolved to have these effects," McKemy tells The Salt.
For some reason, we seem to be hard-wired to enjoy the refreshing, cooling sensation of menthol in our mouths. Research shows that menthol's effects on cold receptors may satiate thirst, ease breathing and help us feel alert — which helps explain why it's so popular not just in candy but also in cigarettes and cold medicine.