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Chow Line: Gut reactions to candy canes vary (for 12/21/08)

December 12, 2008

I've heard contradictory views: Do candy canes cause indigestion or do they combat it?

In this case, you've heard correctly in both cases. The trigger for either (as far as candy canes are concerned) is peppermint.

First, the good news. Peppermint and peppermint oil have been used for centuries as an herbal remedy for upset stomach. A 2007 study appears to back up such claims. For a study in the June 2007 issue of the Italian journal Digestive and Liver Disease, researchers tested peppermint oil's effects on 57 people with irritable bowel syndrome. They were looking to see if peppermint oil capsules could relieve symptoms including gas, constipation, diarrhea, and abdominal bloating, pain and discomfort. An impressive 75 percent of the participants who took peppermint oil capsules experienced major reductions, compared with just 38 percent who took a placebo.

The menthol in peppermint might be the reason for this effect. According to a Harvard Medical School Health Report, The Sensitive Gut, the menthol may block calcium channels, relaxing the "smooth" muscles in intestinal walls.

However, like most peppermint-oil remedies sold today, the peppermint oil capsules in the study had an enteric coating, which allows the capsule to pass through the stomach, not dissolving until it hits the small intestine. That's important, because when in the stomach, peppermint can cause the sphincter between the stomach and the esophagus to relax. And that's the bad news: The sphincter is what normally prevents stomach acid from backing up into the esophagus -- a condition officially called gastroesophageal reflux and commonly known as heartburn or indigestion. Depending on how sensitive you are to the peppermint oil in candy canes, and depending on how many candy canes you enjoy this holiday season, you might experience such an effect.

Still, peppermint tea is often suggested as a way to soothe both your nerves and your stomach, and it has no enteric coating. As with anything, the effects you experience when consuming peppermint may vary with the amount that passes between your lips and your particular sensitivity.

Keep that in mind as you celebrate the big upcoming holiday -- Candy Cane Day on Dec. 26. And, if you're concerned about your weight, be certain to be moderate in your enjoyment of this seasonal treat. The calories in candy canes vary with their size, but, according to the National Confectioners Association, the typical candy cane has 55 calories — not a bad sweet treat, but, as with any "empty calories" (calories that don't also offer any valuable nutrition), don't overindulge.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Julie Shertzer, registered dietitian and program specialist for Ohio State University Extension in the Department of Human Nutrition, in the College of Education and Human Ecology.

Martha Filipic
Julie Shertzer