Mint tricks the body into feeling cool

June 29, 2021

Haven’t turned on that oven much lately, eh? No surprise.

But despite the heat one scorching, sunny afternoon during a trip to Morocco a couple of years ago, I was offered hot mint tea so that I could “cool off a bit.” What gave?

a photo of mint
Mint tricks the body into thinking it is cool

It turns out that certain foods and beverages, even though consumed at high temperatures, have a cooling effect on our bodies—or seem to do so.

While hot tea, for example, does raise the body’s core temperature (and iced tea lowers it), we humans regulate that core temperature to keep it a steady 98.6 degrees. In order to cool down the body’s heat, we just perspire more. And when that perspiration evaporates, we feel chill.

This heat swap is especially efficient in our dry, high desert plain or mountain air (like that in much of Morocco). Don’t try this trick in Southern or Midwestern midsummer humidity, but count your geographic blessings while here.

Mint in Moroccan tea

As for the mint in that Moroccan tea, it is way super-chill. Going down the hatch, the organic compound menthol (redolent in the leaves of mint) triggers the same protein sensory receptors in the mouth as does cold temperature while, say, eating ice cream.

In the case of both mint and cold that protein is TRPM8 (pronounced “trip M 8”). When we consume mint, it tricks our body into feeling cold although neither the body nor the mint may be. That’s why hot mint tea cools and especially why chocolate mint ice cream is a double powerhouse come July and August.

All plants related to mint do this, so when the dog days arrive, heed the cooling effect of basil, tarragon, oregano, sage and thyme, all members of Lamiaceae, or the mint family.

In a manner of thinking, the reverse occurs with another protein sensory receptor that we have, TRPV1 (“trip V 1”). In this case, both capsaicin (the oil in chiles that makes them “hot”) and actual hot heat trigger TRPV1. As a consequence, a bowl of green makes you perspire for two reasons and, just like hot mint tea, is another way to cool off, oddly enough. Perspiration equals evaporation equals chill.

Other foods that cool are those that hydrate well. Athletes and their trainers long have known that certain fruits and vegetables, due to their extraordinarily high water content, reintroduce back into the body both that water as well as minerals and nutrients that have been lost during exercise. They are, in a sense, “better than” plain water at both hydration and cooling down. So, to chill, eat them also.

The water in watermelon

Watermelon (aptly named) is a gimme at 92% water, but so are lettuce and all forms of cucumber at about 96% water. Most other melons also contain upward of 90% water, while stone fruits such as peaches and apricots clock in at around 88%.

Ninety-four percent of a tomato’s weight is water. Other vegetables in the above-90% club are cabbage, peppers and spinach. The rawer, the higher.

I brought these recipes with me when I moved back here to my hometown from Chicago five years ago. They’ll cool you off even better in our dry climate than they did me during 14 years of humid and stultifying summers there.

A third recipe idea isn’t given here except in its broad strokes. That is to use stale bread that was baked in a hotter kitchen some days earlier later in a cooler kitchen. This is the famous Italian recipe for panzanella, a bread salad full of the cooling vegetables tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, red onion and basil, all slathered in a crisping, vibrant vinaigrette.

You even could add some mint.

Shrimp and watermelon salad with creamy pepper-citrus dressing

Makes 4 servings as a main dish, 8 as a side dish.

Ingredients

1/2 cup low-fat or regular mayonnaise
3 tablespoons orange juice
Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon or 1 teaspoon dried
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1 9- to 10-ounce bag mixed salad greens
16 cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 green bell pepper, sliced
3 green onions, white and light green parts, diced
16 large shrimp, cooked

2 cups rindless watermelon, in 1-inch chunks

Directions

Whisk together the mayonnaise, orange and lime juices, honey and vinegar in small bowl until well blended. Add the tarragon, salt and peppers to taste.

Combine the lettuce, tomatoes, bell pepper and green onions in large salad bowl. Top with the shrimp and watermelon. Toss with the dressing.

 

Orzo salad with spinach, feta, mint and olives

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

1 pound orzo, cooked and drained

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon fruity olive oil

1 10-ounce package baby spinach

1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and chopped

8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped roughly or in chiffonade

1 4-ounce package sun-dried tomatoes, in oil, drained, cut into strips

Directions

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the garlic in the olive oil until aromatic, about 1 minute. Add the spinach; cook until wilted, about 2 minutes. Remove to a colander; drain, squeezing out any excess water. Place in a large serving bowl. Add the olives, feta cheese, mint and sun-dried tomatoes; mix well. To the bowl, add the orzo; toss with the vegetable-cheese mixture.

Reach Bill St. John at billstjohn@gmail.com

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.

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