A Brief History of Mint, from Air Freshener to Breath Freshener


This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Mint has never been just a flavor — it has straddled the line between something medicinal and something that smells good. Mint is a fragrant herb, yes, but so are rosemary, sage, lavender, and thyme. So how did mint become the flavor of choice for just about every toothpaste on the market? Why are breath mints called breath mints?

That's because of a unique chemical element: menthol and the cooling sensation that menthol creates. We associate that cold feeling with freshness (which may have as much to do with marketing as anything), and so mint has the ability to make our mouths feel clean, whether or not they really are. Menthol also works as a pest repellent (it's much more overwhelming for a creature a fraction of our size), and it's an analgesic (which is why it's good for cough drops). But more than anything it's what makes the flavor of mint so appealing as a breath freshener. Here's how mint became the king of oral hygiene and a major American industry.



According to Greek myth, mint was a beautiful river nymph named Minthe, who fell in love with Hades but was turned by Hades’ wife, Persephone, into a plain-looking little plant that people would step on. Hades, trying to comfort Minthe, gave her a delightful fragrant scent, so people would at least appreciate her sweetness. In ancient Greece, that sweet-smelling mint was used for all kinds of things. It was scattered on floors to serve as a room freshener, used in funeral rites, and also eaten to cure indigestion.


Medieval Europe

In medieval Europe, mint found a use as something both good for you and good-smelling: a breath freshener. People mixed it into vinegar to make mouthwash, or just chewed on it to make their breath less rank — but they also used all sorts of other fragrant herbs and spices, including parsley, marjoram, fennel, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, sage, and rosemary.



In 1870, peppermint Altoids were invented by the London confectioner Smith & Company, which made medicinal lozenges. The little white candies contained a big dose of peppermint extract, making them much stronger than an actual mint plant, and they were sold not for their flavor but to calm the stomach.



Around the same time, the mint began its journey to dental hygiene. In the mid-1870s, a dentist named Washington Sheffield invented toothpaste. It was made with hydrogen peroxide and baking soda, so Sheffield often added mint extracts (as well as other flavors) to make it taste less terrible. His patients loved the flavor and asked for samples, and business took off from there.



Soon after, in 1879, Listerine was invented as an antiseptic. It was made from alcohol infused with eucalyptol (from eucalyptus), thymol (from thyme), and, of course, menthol (from mint), and was eventually marketed to dentists for use on their patients. But it wasn’t until 1914 that Listerine started selling to the general public with a clever marketing scheme: to convince people that halitosis was ruining their lives. Though Listerine didn’t taste purely minty, it did have that cooling blast of menthol, which quickly became associated with breath freshening.



Meanwhile, chewing gum was invented. Mint wasn’t the first gum flavor — people tried orange and licorice first — but the flavor of peppermint extract lasted longer. By the 1890s, Wrigley’s had introduced a whole line of chewing gums, including Wrigley’s Spearmint. In 1914 it added Doublemint gum to the mix. Around the same time, Pep-O-Mint Lifesavers were invented. Wint-O-Green, Cl-O-ve, Lic-O-Rice, Vi-O-let, and Cinn-O-Mon soon joined the family of "mints," and ads began targeting fastidious Americans worried about their breath. The natural menthol in mint oil made it the obvious and most popular flavoring for these halitosis cures.



Maybe not coincidentally, as America was developing a taste for mint, New York and Michigan were becoming centers of mint farming. Manufacturers grew vast fields of spearmint and peppermint, which they then distilled in enormous stills into mint extracts and oils. At one point in the early 1900s, Michigan made 90 percent of the world’s mint flavoring. But when crops were blighted with fungus in the 1920s, some of the major producers turned from growing to trying to breed blight-resistant varieties, and actual mint production moved to the Pacific Northwest. Washington and Oregon produced most of the world’s mint flavoring until the 1990s, and are still the biggest growers in the United States. But today many of the major toothpaste, chewing gum, and breath mint companies have switched to synthetic flavoring, or cheaper mint extracts from India and China.



It’s hard to find a toothpaste in America today that doesn’t contain some sort of mint flavor, although in some other countries you’ll also find clove and fennel. And companies are still inventing new flavors of mint gum (like Wintermint, Smooth Mint, Sweet Mint, and Polar Ice). But in recent years, scientists have circled back toward one of the more ancient uses of mint: as something to calm the stomach. Though things like peppermint tea have long been a folk remedy for indigestion, studies have shown that peppermint oil can significantly help treat irritable bowel syndrome. That’s also probably thanks to the menthol, which though it doesn’t actually kill the bacteria that make for bad breath, does react with the body’s opioid receptors for a slight numbing effect.

Illustrations: Robin Muccari

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

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