Food Culture

Freshly Minted

How mint became the default flavor of dental hygiene

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Once, and only once, I saw a stranger behaving curiously in the toothpaste aisle. He was standing with his arms crossed and brow furrowed; his eyes seemed to scan everything from the top shelf to bottom, then back to the top again. I waited some time for him to move before I realized that he was doing the same thing I had come to do: read the labels and frown. Cool Mint, Strong Mint, Radiant Mint, Fresh Mint, Clean Mint, Vanilla Mint, Spearmint, Cinnamint, Now With Intense Mint Flavor: there were no options without mint.

I can’t speak for the stranger, but my disappointment with this stunning variety was dermatological. In my early twenties I was diagnosed with a skin condition that was aggravated by among other things, mint oil. At the time, I was a serious mint user: I always had a pack of gum in my bag and thought Altoids were a required final course after every meal. I replaced the breath mints with xylitol-based fruit gums and the old-fashioned remedy of fresh fruit after a meal, but mintless toothpaste is a specialty item, difficult to find: for most toothpastes, mint is an essential feature, not an optional flavor.

But in the history of dental hygiene, the ubiquity of mint is a relatively recent phenomenon. Humankind has devised itself breath fresheners and dental abrasives throughout recorded time, but these varied greatly among cultures, depending mostly on what materials were available. Crushed shells, chalk or brick dust, and even powdered bone could serve to scrub teeth and clean the gums until the invention of toothpaste in the late 19th century. To sweeten the breath, medieval Europeans could crush herbs into their tooth scrub or vinegar mouthwash; mint was sometimes used for this purpose, but so were rosemary, parsley, and sage. Other cultures chewed aromatic seeds—fennel seeds, cardamom, star anise—to abrade and sweeten the mouth; some of these fragrant seeds still appear in the bowls of colorful mukhwas you see at Indian restaurants.

The twentieth century brought several changes to this homemade, all-natural dental care: improved science led to a better understanding of hygiene and new technology led to the industrialization of materials that had previously been made in the home, as well as brand new products. One of these products, Listerine, made good use of another twentieth-century device—advertising.

The Listerine company didn’t invent halitosis—neither the word nor the condition—but they did invent an extremely effective marketing campaign for an extremely foul-tasting liquid. Originally a surgical antiseptic, Listerine destroys the primary cause of malodorous breath, bacteria that live in the mouth. But science aside, the acrid antiseptic won its way into the mouths of the American public by way of social insecurities. No one wants bad breath, and if everyone else is gargling with Listerine, then those who don’t will become social pariahs.

A campaign like this, which exaggerates a social ailment and normalizes the cure, can rewrite cultural history. Suddenly, daily mouth care was considered the new normal, a recognizable routine that other products could capitalize on. This 1932 Lifesavers ad not only draws a character from Listerine’s campaign, reanimating the halitosis-suffering social and romantic outcast, but it also builds on the normalized practice of mouthwash. It’s not enough to rinse the mouth, claims the ad; you should be ready to pop a breath-sweetening candy throughout the day.

There’s not a single ingredient in a Lifesaver that combats halitosis or cleans the mouth, but each of the candies offered in this ad features a flavor agent that has historically been used as a breath freshener: Pep-O- mint, Wint-O-green, Cl-O-ve, Lic-O-rice, Cinn-O-mon, and Vi-O-let. Violet and licorice seem like old-fashioned flavors to us now, but both have sweet and slightly astringent tastes made them good crossover candies for a breath-saving sweet. Clove and cinnamon still appear in toothpastes today, particularly European and Middle Eastern brands, thanks to their strong and fiery flavors.  But for an early twentieth century American manufacturer, mint oils would have been the cheapest and easiest breath-freshening flavor agent to obtain. Mint farms flourished in cool, damp regions near the Great Lakes and in the Pacific Northwest; some companies had already made a fortune distilling mint oils for export and medicinal use (peppermint was thought to use digestive distress), and the addition of the manufacture of candies and toothpastes was a lucrative leap.

But it wasn’t accessibility alone that made peppermint the most popular Lifesaver flavor for years and, over time, the preferred flavor for dental hygiene products. It’s the sensation, more than the scent or the taste, that causes us to associate mint with clean mouths. Mint makes the mouth feel cold.

That “fresh” sensation is a thermal illusion: the actual temperature of your mouth doesn’t change. Mouths contain particular cells that that activate in the presence of hot or cold: the condition of extreme temperature “turns on” the cell, which then sends a message to the brain that the mouth is rather hot or rather cold. But menthol also “turns on” these cells, which send their message to the brain as directed, and we experience a coolness in the mouth that isn’t there. By itself, mint doesn’t make the mouth a less suitable environment for germs; it’s the abrasives in toothpastes or the alcohols in mouthwashes that do the dirty work. But it’s easy to see how minty freshness became associated with cleanliness: the illusory change of temperature and the sharp, distinctive taste remind us more of cleaning agents than candy.

At the same time, the cool feeling of mint is more appealing and marketable than the taste of actual astringent solutions. Classic Listerine doesn’t cool, it burns: that fiery sensation is not a thermal illusion but a mild irritation of the sensitive mouth tissues as the antiseptic solution goes about its germ-killing business. Effective, but it doesn’t make a strong case for its own daily use. And so, in an intriguing reversal of the invented demand for antiseptic mouthwash, the market compelled Listerine to introduce a gentler, mint-flavored antiseptic for the first time in 1992. As the company president remarked to the New York Times, they’d done their research, and they knew that mint is what the market wanted.

In the toothpaste aisle, it certainly seemed that other dental care companies were acting on the same research, deviating from mintiness only for children, who perhaps haven’t yet acquired the taste for the strong, astringent flavor. Adult toothpastes tend to come with a maximized mint punch. Because we associate that cool sensation with a clean sensation, toothpastes promise us more intense mint flavor to create the illusion of a more intensely clean mouth.

The promise is not so appealing if you associate mint oil with a puffy, swollen mouth and itchy face, however. My mint reaction subsided as I got older, as often happens with allergies, so I now enjoy mint tea and can withstand a mildly minted baking soda toothpaste. But without the daily exposure to concentrated mint oils, the tastes of “mint expressions” and “curiously strong mints” are repellent to me.

Mints photo by Josh Kenzer via Flickr (Creative Commons); Listerine and Lifesaver ads courtesy of Modern Mechanix.

Comments

  1. I’m with you on scouring the aisles for a non-mint toothpaste, and I can’t handle xylitol, either. When Natural Dentist reformulated its toothpastes a few years ago, I lost my option. Now my dentist wants me to use a fluoride toothpaste. No mint, no xylitol or other alcohol sugar, and fluoride. What a challenge! Tom’s makes two toothpastes for kids that work, although I had to read a lot of fine print to discover that. One is way too sweet for me. The other is tolerable. I hope they don’t reformulate it.

    • I hope so too, for your sake, but my experience with Tom’s is that they change their speciality lineup every year or so. . . they used to have an apricot and a lemon/lime toothpaste that were gentle and not too sweet, but I haven’t seen those in years.

      I know fluoride exists in some foods–seafood, spinach–in varying quantities, so perhaps you’ll need to get a nutritionist in cahoots with that dentist!

  2. Ann says:

    There is occasionally cinnamon flavored toothpaste (my sister’s college roommate always bought it because she really doesn’t like the taste of mint), and I remember there being commercials for a while maybe 10 years ago for orange flavored toothpaste. I don’t know if they have the same oils in them as mint flavored varieties, but there are options out there. And I’m pretty sure they were major brands, too (ie Crest or Colgate, etc)

  3. Leslie Holman-Anderson says:

    Home-made tooth powder is incredibly easy, and you can flavor it with anything (or nothing.) Simply fill a small jar 3/4 full or baking soda and add a few drops of whatever oil or extract you want. Don’t like mint or cinnamon? Try lemon, or even vanilla. Want something antiseptic? A few drops of tea tree oil will do the trick. Shake it up and close the lid; for best results give it a few days to infuse all the soda with flavor. But don’t dip your toothbrush into the jar, which will contaminate it with germs from your mouth. Instead, shake some powder into a small dish or jar lid and dip your wet brush into that. Tipping the excess down the drain will help keep the drain smelling fresh.

  4. Ag Pob says:

    As far as MINT flavor, doesn’t ‘fluoride’ naturally have a very mild mint flavor??? The OLD “Crest” ,citrus burst, or splash, whichever one doesn’t exist now, had a much more orange flavor than the current item. I am considering “Tom’s”. Maybe the “Gatorade” chemical thing with their citrus flavor is the reason orange is a tough flavor to find in products.

  5. I was told I’d grow out of this “sensitivity” but it’s only gotten worse. For the first time I swelled up today due to chapstick. Before it was a burning sensation where the gent touched me and/or a headache and watery eyes should the smell be strong. Once I was breathed on while he was eating an altoid. I threw up and couldn’t speak for a whole day. The only toothpastes I can use are children’s toothpastes and imported toothpastes since they are the few that don’t contain mint or contain very little traces.

  6. Kelly says:

    This mint thing in public life is really bad for me. I was on a plane and the guy next to me open a bag of mint chocolate cookies. I vomited for 6 hours because the mint was just stuck in that recycled air. The lousy part too is when on a date the guy pops in a mint after dinner trying to prepare for a kiss; that is so very awkward. I wish Tom’s would stay committed to offerings outside of mint. I miss their mango gel. I wish the world wasn’t addicted to mint.

  7. Nikole says:

    I’m so glad to know i am not alone in this frustration. The mint flavor sensation is so intense in my mouth that it almost makes me gag. I can’t stand the mint flavors that the world is so freaking in love with nowadays. I just wanted to bring up that a company called LUSH makes toothy tabs. They have all kinds of different flavors which was a godsend for me. But because of my crappy hygiene before discovering there product, I have gingivitis and have to use the mouthwash my doctor gave me(Mint flavored but i have no other choice). I had never seen tom’s before. I will have to check that brand out. But Just wanted to say that lush is out there as another alternative.

  8. Trilln451 says:

    I can live with some mints, but I HATE PEPPERMINT! I have NEVER liked it, not even as a child – Christmas for me meant The Season of Repulsive Candy Canes! Ugh!

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