Toothpaste and Beyond: The Commodity Journey of Mint Oil

Spend Matters welcomes a guest post from Robert Miles of Mintec, Ltd.

Years ago, the spice trade dominated world commerce. Precious and easily moved spices often worth their weight (or more) in gold travelled the globe, from all the ends of the earth.

Lately we've been seeing similar excitement in the trade in global essences and spices. The price of Indian mint oil for example soared at the start of this year due to high demand and limited supply but is now starting to ease as the next northern crop is expected to arrive toward the middle of 2012.

It is perhaps surprising, that menthe, or mint oil, should attract such attention more reminiscent of the positions that formerly cornered the markets for precious metals, or the trade in soft commodities like coffee, cocoa, pork bellies or orange juice, but traders are now apparently stalking the new commodity markets of the emerging world after the scent of an opportunity.

Mint oil is obtained by steam distillation of Mentha arvensis (mint) leaves. In addition to its use in sweets and desserts like ice cream, mint is also increasingly being used in medicines for seasonal diseases like coughs and colds. It is thought to assist in the amelioration of stomach pain and also provides the fresh taste in toothpaste, and smell in soaps, detergents, shampoo, aromatherapy and perfumes.

Mint might only recently have become "exciting" in terms of it price, but in actual fact however mint is one of the world's oldest "cures," with archaeological evidence pointing to the use of mint as a medicine for at least 10,000 years.

Perhaps surprisingly to anyone in the West who may just see mint as an ornamental plant in gardens, or even just as an herb in a pot on a windowsill, India is actually the leading global producer and exporter of mint and mint oil. Although there still remains some continuing commercial output in Brazil and the US, these products come predominantly from just two main countries, India and China.

Global mint oil production is currently around 40,000 tonnes, of which India produces around 15,000, and exports roughly 10,000 each year. Buyers come from all around the world to purchase Indian mint but the main destination is actually China (which due to the growth of its economy is increasingly consuming its own domestic supply), and the West.

The variety of mint that is most commonly used for commercial extraction of oil is actually originally from Japan. Menthe arvensis, has characteristics of high oil content and good growth, which means that this variety of Japanese mint is the variety primarily spread for commercial cultivation around the world.

Although such mint plants tend to prefer wet, temperate climates and moist soils, it is actually a fairy ubiquitous herb. The different species of the Mentha genus are widely distributed and can be found in most environments. In fact, unless it is confined to a pot and due care and attention is paid, mint can quite rapidly grow to become an invasive pest due to its habit of spreading its propagating roots (stolons) widely under and over ground and springing up new growth from these, to crowd out other plants.

The area under menthe in India has been estimated at about half to a third of the size of Rhode Island. It is largely grown in Uttar Pradesh, a populous Indian state with fertile soil that benefits from growing mint, as it can be harvested after a short period with minimum labour.

These days certain flavours and essences have come to seem almost ubiquitous and are thought of as almost being essential parts of modern life. If life has a certain flavour, whether it be chocolate, coffee, cinnamon or simply mint, what are the chances this could have become this exciting in such a short period of time. If variety is the spice of life, such spices might be the essence of it.

- Robert Miles

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