One bite, sip or lick of a minty food and it feels like a cool mountain breeze is running through your mouth. Why do minty things make your mouth feel so, brrrrrrr, cold? How in the world can a food change the temperature in your mouth?
It doesn’t change the temperature, but just like peppers make you feel spicy hot, mint has a cooling effect. The capsaicin in hot peppers provide that uncomfortable burning feeling, whereas the menthol in mint has the opposite effect.
Plants probably have these tingly effects to prevent them from being eaten by predators. Plants that make animals and insects feel uncomfortable when they’re eating them are less likely to be eaten in the future and more likely to sow seeds and reproduce. It’s a handy little defense mechanism that humans find pleasing sometimes, especially when we know it’s safe.
How does the menthol make you feel cold, though? Thank your somatosensory system, a network of neurons that control things like tastes and smell. The menthol triggers a chemical chain reaction with ion channels in your skin (and tongue and eyes) that connect to these neurons. The neurons tells your brain “this feels cold,” even though it doesn’t. The menthol tricks your cold temperature receptors into thinking something is happening, and your body is easily fooled. So sneaky!
Eucalyptol and icilin can also cause this cooling feeling. When you are done eating or drinking mint, the effect lasts for a while, making every sip, breath and bite chilly for a little while.
Despite the trickery, many find the cooling sensation pleasant. It’s harmless fun, so enjoy the wintry feeling in your mouth! Just know that you are your brain are being scammed by a little tiny plant! Just wait until your brain finds out mint doesn't even make your breath smell better...