The 4 Differences Between Spearmint and Peppermint? Which One To Use?
Although they are closely related, spearmint and peppermint are two different plants! From a distance, you may confuse them with each other. But if you look closely and give them a good taste, I’m sure you’ll be able to tell them apart soon enough.
Fresh spearmint has little to no menthone and 37% limonene, giving it a mild and sweet taste. In contrast, peppermint has an intense mint flavor due to 25.4% menthone and only 9.1% limonene. Peppermint has purple boxy stems, whereas spearmint is greener. In cooking, peppermint is suited for baking while spearmint is for teas and savory dishes.
Do you know that one of the two is way better for producing essential oils than the other, and although they look similar, there is still a way to differentiate them? Let’s dive in!
1. Appearance: Spearmint vs Peppermint
Do you know that the word “mint” is the English word for “Mentha”?
Mentha is a genus, not an herb! Without getting into boring details, a genus is a massive group of different herbs that share a very close origin. The Mentha genus, as discussed in this document from the University of Nis, includes hundreds of different types of herbs (called species)! Hence, the mint you have a home is one species of the hundreds of the Mentha genus.
However, do not despair! It is quite easy to recognize which mint you have.
Indeed, despite the countless types of mint, the mint type that most commonly can be found are spearmint (known as Mentha Spicata species) and peppermint (known as Mentha Piperita species). These are, by far, the ones most common in the USA and EU in supermarkets and grocery stores. They both grow up to a meter (3 feet) in quite large bushes in the right conditions.
Before diving into the differences, remember that spearmint is also called “mint” or “garden mint,” and it is the most common between the two.
Let’s dive into their differences.
Peppermint steams are purple in color. Spearmint has green stems with occasionally a light purple hue, but way less prominent than 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.
Spearmint leaves, as the word suggests, have a spear shape that is larger compared to the thinner peppermint counterpart. Moreover, peppermint leaves might have purple/dark red veins (even stronger on the back) missing from the green-only spearmint ones. Peppermint’s younger leaves might have also had purple edges.
Spearmint leaves have sharper edges, and they have more tiny hair compared to their peppermint counterpart. Moreover, spearmint is, in general, more rugose than its peppermint counterpart.
Both spearmint and peppermint grow leaves in pairs. Each leaf in the pair is opposite the 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.
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 its spearmint counterpart.
2. Taste: Spearmint vs Peppermint
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 tastes as those of 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 (more on this 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!
Chemical Compound Comparison for Flavor Profiles
Now that we’ve discussed the typical taste descriptors used to differentiate peppermint from spearmint, why don’t we take it a step further?
The average peppermint plant has three main chemical components responsible for its strong minty flavor profile. Menthone, eucalyptol, and menthol comprise 55% of all compounds in peppermint. These have a distinctly peppery mint flavor that is accompanied by a strong cooling sensation.
In comparison, spearmint plants generally contain much more limonene, carvone, and pinene. The aforementioned chemical compounds amount to 70.2% of every component found in fresh spearmint, lending it a mostly mild and sweet mint flavor with hints of spice and citrus.
Let’s find out exactly what chemical compounds are responsible for the distinct flavor profiles of fresh spearmint and peppermint plants! Check out the table below for more details on this.
|Chemical Compound||Percentage in Peppermint||Percentage in Spearmint||Flavor Profile|
|Menthone||25.4||–||Camphor, deep, fresh, minty, peppery|
|Eucalyptol||17.7||2.9||Bittersweet, cool, eucalyptus, minty, peppery, spicy, sweet|
|Menthol||12.1||–||Camphor, cool, minty, peppery|
|Limonene||9.1||37.0||Citrusy, fresh, minty, sweet|
|Menthofuran||5.8||–||Earthy, nutty, pungent|
|α-Pinene||5.6||9.8||Camphor, earthy, fresh, minty, sharp, sweet, woody|
|β-Pinene||5.5||10.4||Dry, fresh, woody|
|Sabinene||2.9||3.1||Citrusy, peppery, spicy, woody|
|Menthyl acetate||2.4||–||Cool, minty|
|Carvone||–||13.0||Bitter, minty, sweet|
|Camphene||0.2||2.5||Camphor, citrusy, cool, minty, spicy|
|β-Caryophyllene||1.6||2.4||Dry, spicy, sweet, woody|
The numbers above may come as a surprise for many people who are not highly familiar with either mint plants. I am also quite confident that they may be a bit underwhelmed, especially with the figures for the carvone and menthol content of spearmint and peppermint.
Here’s the deal: The high 71.6% carvone content of spearmint and the high 54.2% menthol content of peppermint are only true for their essential oils.
In reality, fresh spearmint has about 13% carvone and 0% menthol, whereas peppermint has about 0% carvone and 12% menthol. Of course, a single bottle of their essential oils will have substantially more as a single bottle has the concentrated oil of numerous dried mint leaves.
3. Nutritional Value: Spearmint vs Peppermint
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 from the SELF Nutrition Data.
Carbohydrates (% daily intake)
Proteins (% daily intake)
Vitamin A (% daily intake)
Vitamin C (% daily intake)
Folate (% daily intake)
Iron (% daily intake)
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.
Here is the takeaway…
Given the lower amount of calories in absolute (only 70 for 100g which is quite a bit of leaf), peppermint is shown to provide more benefits to your diet. Vitamin C indeed improves your skin health, immune system, wound healing, and much more.
4. Culinary Use: Spearmint vs Peppermint
Do you have some extra herbs, and you do know what to do with them?
Here is a quick takeaway for you
Spearmint should be used for cooking, not peppermint. Indeed, peppermint is mainly used in baking such as in lollipops, ice cream, and hot chocolate recipes.
Here is my favorite peppermint recipe.
1. Hot Chocolate Peppermint
This is the typical Christmas hot chocolate that, for my guilty sweet tooth, I have from time to time on cold winter days. Here peppermint extract is required (not dry leaves). This is often the case with peppermint recipes.
Fun Fact: There are two national holidays in the United States that are specifically for celebrating mint! You can share your love for mint as early as the 18th of January every year for National Chocolate Mint Day. Then, there’s the National Peppermint Latte day that’s celebrated on the 3rd of December annually.
This is a medium-difficulty recipe that requires, on average, 15 minutes of your time. Once you buy them, you can generally make many hot chocolates, and many of those ingredients (except for the diary part) last for long.
On top of such extract, you can find the Dr. Oexter version (my favorite) here on Amazon. You also need milk, heavy cream, cocoa, sugar salt, and candy canes.
Spearmint, on the other hand, is way more oriented toward salty dishes. In Yummly, you can find more than 50 recipes (yes, you read well) using spearmint. As you can notice, the majority of them are for salty dishes ranging from moussaka to meatballs.
For mojitos, spearmint should be used, to give an extra fresh boost without overpowering the taste of the drink as peppermint would do.
Here is my favorite spearmint recipe (pasta as expected from an Italian)
2. Pasta with Mint and Butter
This is an easy recipe that is ready in less than 15 minutes. It is a cheap recipe as it requires just a few ingredients, where spearmint is the star here. It can be used to fill pasta, but also with a normal dry one is perfectly fine. Check the recipes below, you will not regret it!
Essential Oils: Peppermint vs. Spearmint and the Menthol
Essential oils, as discussed by the University of Ilorin, are special substances (liquids) stored within each herb. You can find such oils in leaves (like in mint and basil), or seeds and stems. Essential oils produce an intense smell and, each plant has only a few grams of them.
These oils need to be extracted with special devices (often through high temperatures). To have an idea of how complex the process can be, have a look at the video below.
Essential oils, in the last decade, have become quite popular in the last years due to many properties attributed to them, although not much rigorous research has been found to prove many of the (health benefits) claimed. However, do not forget that many of them produce an intense and great scent for your home.
Peppermint contains way more “valuable” essential oils than spearmint. This is because, as discussed in this study from the University of Bucharest, peppermint essential oil is way richer in menthol (46.8%). Other studies show that spearmint essential oils only contain up to 11.4% of menthol.
Methanol is a natural component used in cosmetics, scents, and also as a food flavor agent (mint-taste gums, for instance, like this one, are quite famous on Amazon). Menthol essential oils (extracted from peppermint) are famous for fighting infections, insomnia, and irritable bowel.
Should You Get a Mint Essential Oil?
Why not! They are inexpensive (less than 10 dollars) and can create an amazing scent in my house. I do not use them as pain relievers, although many claim their effectiveness against tooth and scoliosis-related pain, among others.
The one I usually buy is the Nexon Botanics (here you can check its price). It is an excellent insect repellant, and a great house scent proven for its relaxing and calming effects.
Another option, on the cheaper side, is the Antizen (here on Amazon, around 2 dollars less expensive). Although many found it effective, I do personally prefer the Nexon one. It smells way better. Check here to know how to use such oils as a diffuser.
Should You Choose Peppermint or Spearmint Tea?
Peppermint tea is tastier and bolder than spearmint one. Indeed, due to its higher menthol content (for more on menthol, check the section above) will have a stronger refreshing taste (that reminds a bit those of mint gum) with a kind of sugary/saccharine taste. Some of my friends described its taste as earthy as well.
Hence, if you love strong tea (black one for instance), then peppermint is also for you as well. If you find it too strong, just mix it with green tea, for instance, or just leave the tea bag for a shorter period of time.
One of my favorite peppermint tea brands can also be found here on Amazon. It is a bit on the higher price, but definitely, its quality is way higher than what you can find on supermarket shelves.
What Should You Grow: Spearmint or Peppermint?
Both spearmint and peppermint can easily grow indoors. However, what should you choose? If you want an easy win and something that gives results fast, then go for spearmint.
Why? It is very likely that both in the UK and USA, you can find them at the grocery store for less than a dollar (British pound). Moreover, spearmint is way more adaptable than peppermint in the kitchen if you want to use it in some recipes.
Indeed, as discussed before, spearmint is the king of mint in recipes. So, you will have in a couple of months a tall and generous mint.
However, if you want to use your herbs for some very refreshing tea, and peppermint is your objective, in this case, you have two options:
- Buy a peppermint plant in a nursery as this herb is not normally sold as a potted plant in supermarkets
- If you feel more adventurous and you want to experience the full mint cycle, you can grow peppermint from seeds. This can be easily founded on Amazon for a few dollars like this one, where you can find both spearmint and peppermint seeds in thousands!
Should You Fertilize Your Mint?
Usually mint does not need fertilizer. It is a strong herb that evolved to withstand a large variety of soil conditions. However, if you still want the best out of it, some minerals will be always welcome to your favorite herb
Nonetheless using them in the wrong amount (or type) can seriously hurt (literally burn) your mint. Check the post below for some insights on which fertilizer to use, how often, and when.
How Many Mint Varieties and Cultivars Exist?
Including peppermint and spearmint, there are more than 600 different varieties and unique cultivars of mint plants. There is a great variation when it comes to their taste and physical appearance.
Other common mint varieties and cultivars include:
- Australian mint
- Banana mint
- Creeping mint
- Dahurian mint
- False apple mint
- Garden mint
- Pineapple mint
- Kentucky Colonel mint
- Lime mint
- Mojito mint
- Sharp-toothed mint
- Upright mint
- Vietnamese mint
The estimation above is according to the University of California. However, the growing conditions they require are generally the same. Methods for propagation and preservation for these different mints are also highly similar.
Are you an indoor gardener? Then I have great news for you! You can grow virtually all mint varieties and cultivars right at home using a good LED grow light—just pay attention to photosynthetically active radiation or PAR!
Learn more about this in our article on PAR in grow lights.
Medicinal Use of Mint Plants
Aside from being used for various culinary applications, from flavoring food to being used for garnish, mint has also been used in both alternative and modern medicine since time immemorial.
Mint has long been used as a herbal medicine in different cultures, from America to China.
Often mixed in with other supposedly medicinal plants, mint is taken to treat several ailments including, but not limited to:
- Body pains
- Digestive issues
- Eye irritation
- Excessive farting
- Sore throat
Interestingly, though, experts say that peppermint is a bit more effective in medical applications than spearmint. Nevertheless, they are generally used similarly.
How to identify better spearmint and peppermint? If you are fond of high-tech you can use Android identification apps such as a PlantNet, one of the best in efficiently recognizing herbs.
Spearmint vs Peppermint gum? Spearmint has a milder taste than peppermint and it is the favorite by the majority of people as not many might find pleasant such strong (slightly more sugary) and bold flavor.
Summary of Differences Between Spearmint and Peppermint
Spearmint and peppermint, at first glance, can be confused one with another. However, upon 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. Its high methanol content makes such an 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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