The traditional candy canes used for decorating Christmas trees can help fight germs and treat digestive disorders, according to a new study.
A study led by McMaster University researcher Alex Ford had found that peppermint oil, found in most candy canes, can act as the first line of defence against irritable bowel syndrome.
"Most of the (effective) species are really from the family Lamiaceae, or mint family," Discovery News quoted Pavel Kloucek, a scientist at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, as saying.
The researchers hope that peppermint oil, and other potent essential oils, may soon be wafted in vapour form over food to inhibit bacterial growth.
For the new study, Kloucek and his team looked at several essential oils to determine how well they could, in vapour form, kill the bacteria responsible for Listeria, Staph, E. coli, and Salmonella infections, and more.
The new study is the first to bring forth the antimicrobial activity of two other mint family members -Mentha villosa and Faassen's catnip -along with another non-mint herb, bluebeard.Moreover, essential oils for horseradish, garlic, hyssop, basil, marjoram, oregano, winter savory, and three types of thyme also showed potent bacteria-busting abilities.
Kloucek said that plant essential oils are lipophilic, i.e. they gravitate towards fat.
"And luckily, in the cell membrane of bacteria, there is plenty of fat, which serves as a seal," he said.
"Essential oils are attracted to this fat and, as their molecules squeeze in between the fat molecules, they cause leakage of the membrane," he added.
If foods were treated with essential oils to prevent illness, the obvious problem to overcome is the oils' potent taste. While strong mint flavour is desirable in a candy cane, it might not work well with other foods. The solution, according to Kloucek and his team, is to carefully match the oil with the food.
The findings have been accepted for publication in the journal Food Control.