Hierba santa, a very special ingredient in Mexican cuisine

Native to Mexico and other countries in the Americas, hierba santa has been very useful since pre-Hispanic times, since, throughout history, its varied properties have always provided great benefits to Mexican cuisine, which has given that unique and special flavor that characterizes it.

Hierba santa, a very special ingredient in Mexican cuisine
Traditional juacané tamale made with hierba santa from Chiapas. Photo: Agricultura

Piper auritum Kunth, better known as hierba santa or hoja santa, is a very special ingredient in traditional Mexican cuisine, characterized by its strong aroma and sweet flavor, which has captivated thousands of diners from pre-Hispanic times to the present. In English, it is known as Mexican pepperleaf.

It is an aromatic plant of the Piperaceae family of the piper genus; it is native to Mexico and Central America and is found in humid forests and secondary forests. It is distributed in Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, Chiapas, Guerrero, Hidalgo, Nayarit, San Luis Potosí, Tabasco and Veracruz.

In Mexican cuisine, its leaves are used to prepare marinades, sauces, and moles and to accompany certain meat dishes such as tamales, fish, and poultry, among others. In the southern states of the country, it is one of the most important and outstanding vegetable species for its flavor.

Since ancient times it has been used as a remedy for various pathologies. For example, its use has been documented in the treatment of women's ailments such as inflammation and infection in the womb, as well as stimulating milk production in lactating women. It is also used in disorders of the digestive system, such as stomach pain or spasm, lack of appetite, and constipation.

In Mexican herbal medicine, its use has been indicated in pathologies such as asthma, laryngitis, and rheumatism. Other documented uses have been to treat snake bites, inflammation, muscle pain, colic, and burns. It has also been found that its consumption can induce spontaneous abortions.

Hierba santa is also called momo, acoyo, tlanepa, or tlanepaquelite. Its sweet and anise flavor (from the anise seed) is similar to eucalyptus, mint, and nutmeg.

As for its chemical properties, its phytochemical content stands out; several authors have reported the isolation of phenolic acids, flavonoids, terpenoids, and essential oils. The latter stand out for their high safrole content, which is considered the most important industrial and medicinal metabolite of this species. However, in high doses, it can be a hepatotoxic compound.

On the other hand, its flavonoid and phenolic acid content have been shown to exert bioactive activities such as antioxidant, antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, and insecticidal, to mention a few.

The aroma of hierba santa is produced by a compound called safrole, which is also found in root beers.

It is important to rescue the endemic species of the country since they are a good source of phytochemicals that can potentially be used to treat or help with pathologies that afflict the Mexican population. It is also important that the ethnobotanical knowledge of our ancestors and millenary cultures be valued and rescued by the new generations so that their uses and customs are not lost. In this sense, it is important to study in vivo to elucidate the toxicity and doses that can be administered, as well as to scale its applications to an industrial level.