Why we love things in mint condition

Most confections come and go, but one sweet still holds dear in our hearts. Oliver Bennett traces the story of our favourite breath-freshener back to Roman mythology and explains its enduring appeal

It was like a Bateman cartoon: "The Judge With a Sense of Humour". After presiding over a recent case wherein the confectionery manufacturer Nestlé Rowntree appealed against a decision forbidding it to use the circular-hole shape of the "Polo" mint as a trademark, Lord Justice Mummery clearly couldn't resist the gag opportunity: "This is an appeal concerning Polos, the mint with the hole in the middle," he concluded. "This is an appeal with a hole in the middle. It is dismissed."

It was like a Bateman cartoon: "The Judge With a Sense of Humour". After presiding over a recent case wherein the confectionery manufacturer Nestlé Rowntree appealed against a decision forbidding it to use the circular-hole shape of the "Polo" mint as a trademark, Lord Justice Mummery clearly couldn't resist the gag opportunity: "This is an appeal concerning Polos, the mint with the hole in the middle," he concluded. "This is an appeal with a hole in the middle. It is dismissed."

To which the response might be a sarcastic: "Stop it, your honour, you're killing me." But while Nestlé Rowntree huffed about how it was "disappointed", the conglomerate should perhaps be pleased. For it shows that the Polo mint has become a part of British folklore.

The Polo remains the UK's favourite mint with a consumer value of more than £57m in 2002. According to company figures 38 million Polo mints are produced every day and around 100 million are chewed, sucked and swallowed every week. Since it was started - its name cleverly derived from the word "polar" and offering two "o"s by which to draw the logo - the uncentred mint has become possessed of an extended family: Supermints, Strong, Super OJs, Citrus Sharp, Smoothies and Spearmint Holes to name but a few Polo derivatives. For sure, Polo has made excellent business out of the mighty void that is its hole.

"In the US, you can trademark a shape, which you cannot do here," explains the confectionery expert Dr William Edwards, the author of The Science of Sugar Confectionery, published by the Royal Society of Chemists. Having worked for 10 years at Rowntree in York (before it became part of the Nestlé corporation), Edwards is now a consultant to the trade, which he seems to realise is a bit of a joke job. "I do eat sweets," he says, "but I expect to get paid for it."

Polo, Edwards says, started life as a product called Lifesaver in the US. "It was shaped like a lifebelt, hence the name," he says. "When US troops were stationed over here during the war, Rowntree started to manufacture Lifesavers for them under licence." When the war drew to a close, the licence was withdrawn. So in 1947, Rowntree came up with its own brand of holey mint, the mighty Polo.

But Polo is just one of many mints in a thriving sector which encompasses the traditional and the innovative. Penny Hawley, who is a spokesman for the fabulously named Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Association (BCCCA) - the chief trade body for British confectioners - says that the humble mint is an evergreen sweet. "Other sweets come and go, but in the mint sector there are classics that have been with us for decades," she says. "They are products that generations have grown up with. There are variations, of course - big mints, little mints, sugar-free mints - but the basic mint is still the same as it was, and we eat them for the same reasons." The BCCCA doesn't have separate figures for mint sales, partly as the market subdivides into several bewildering categories including soft, hard, after-dinner, gum, breath fresheners, breath strips et al. But suffice it to say it is "substantial", well into the billions. Think of how a pack of Trebor Mints, Extra Strong Mints or Polos fits into the pocket or the glove compartment, offering the chance for a quick glucose hit, and one can see their minty point.

Still, what is it exactly that we like about mints? "They're active and dynamic," says Hawley. "Mints are often about travelling. Many of them fit nicely in your pocket and last a long time. They freshen your breath and wake you up." They help you concentrate and keep you alert, some say, in the same spirit as chewing gum, a market which uses a lot of mint and which grew by 18 per cent last year alone. And, as many teenagers will testify, mints also disguise the smell of vodka or tobacco on the breath.

Emma Gilbert, the marketing manager for Foxes, which makes Triple X Strong Mints and glacier mints, agrees with Hawley. "They're a great sweet for people on the move," she says. "They sell well in garages, railway stations and airports. They're refreshing and they last a long time." Small wonder then that Peppy the Glacier Mint bear, created in 1897, is still going strong.

Like other sweets, mints grew out of the world of medicine. "At one point, pharmacy and confectionery were the same thing, and sweets developed according to their functions," says Edwards. "Mints date back to the 18th century, and come from the tradition of 'mouth fresheners'. Once sugar was widely available, people's teeth rotted, and as a consequence a market in breath fresheners and mouth fresheners grew up. You can imagine the 18th-century gentleman, off to see his mistress, popping in a mouth freshener." And, more or less, that is how items such as mint strips are marketed now.

Mint became popular as a medicine in Western Europe in the middle of the 18th century, when fields of it were cultivated in Mitcham in Surrey. It was used as a medicine for all kinds of ailments including abdominal cramps, cholera, diarrhoea, chest complaints, nasal catarrh, laryngitis, and - as anyone who has had several Extra Strong Mints at once can testify - as an anaesthetic. It was also used for the teeth, and is still widely used to flavour toothpaste.

"Mint products started as lozenges and tablets, which were made on the same presses as medicinal products," says Edwards, adding that, within the industry, those working in the mint factories claim they never get colds. "Mint was said to settle one's stomach, and mint liqueurs and fondants started to emerge." It's an idea that lives on in the after-dinner mint, which has had a boost as a device by which to moderate the heat of a curry. Then there's the sophisticated end of the market, the After Eights and their kind, sold in the dinner-party market as a digestif.

Over the years, the pharmaceutical and confectionery markets split - although the legacy of their fusion can be seen in the contemporary chemist's display of such things as Olbas tablets and Rucola. Now, mints mostly contain sugar and so any medicinal effects are probably outweighed by the damage they do to the teeth, which is why sugar-free mints are now so successful, with the downside that the artificial sweeteners can, according to Edwards, have a laxative effect.

A spokesman for Cadbury Trebor Bassett, which produces Trebor Mints - the leaders in the extra-strong-mint sector - says that the mint market has been, "predominantly male. Some mints have that macho element to them. It's the vindaloo syndrome." But he adds that mints are a growth market across the sexes. "They're positioned as an alternative to brushing your teeth, in that they have the same benefit, which is keeping your mouth fresh."

The Cadbury spokesman adds that the mint market is getting younger and more demanding. "It's all in the packaging these days," he says with a nod to Trebor Mini Mints which come in a credit card-sized holder which offers that "go-anywhere" dynamism. "Mints are about convenience," he says. "They last for weeks in the car. They have that portability."

The spokesman has also researched his mint history, and is a mine of mint-lore. "It all goes back to a nymph called Menthe, who tried to lure Proserpine's husband Pluto," he says. "So angered was Proserpine that she cast a spell on Menthe, turning her into a herb. Classic love triangle." Menthe, luckily, continued to attract men by her freshness. And thus successive generations of lovers believe that by popping a mint, they'll increase their attractiveness. The Romans then grew mint and bequeathed it to England's convent gardens which cultivated the three main species: spearmint, peppermint and pennyroyal. "England became the home of mint, and in a way it still is," says a spokesman for Cadbury. "Our appetite for them is enormous." Hole or no hole, mints are the sweet of our times.

SUCK IT AND SEE: WHAT YOUR MINT SAYS ABOUT YOU

Murray Mints

These loose mints are the favourite of grans and grandads across the nation. Its habitats include the glove compartments of Sunday-drivers' cars, and in ornamental bowls atop doilies in the lounge. Arguably less of an active go-for-it mint than a long, slow, suck in front of the television. The single most memorable thing about Murray Mints is the preposterously catchy jingle - "Murray Mints, the too-good-to-hurry mints" - which haunts the collective memory of the UK's baby-boomers.

Kendal Mint Cake

This is the favourite of the cagoule crowd, the idea being to give you a sugar rush to celebrate one's arrival at the top of Helvellyn. Brand leader is George Romney, whose mint cake is a great old-fashioned brick of minty sugar that comes on like a veritable glacier of glucose. But surely the key sell is its fabulously nostalgic pictorial packaging, aided by the legend that Sir Edmund Hillary and Sirdar Tensing enjoyed it on Everest. May be undergoing a minor renaissance among the extreme-sports crowd. Then again, may not.

Trebor Extra Strong Mints

The daddy of the macho mints, Trebor Extra Strongs are great sugary, minty circles that could almost be used in the construction industry. Their can-do vibe is augmented by a nice and vaguely pre-war pack, harking back to the Edwardian beginnings of the mighty confectioner Robertson & Woodcock ("Trebor" was Robert spelled backwards, Robertson's first name). The Trebor Confectionery Company then launched Trebor Mints in 1935, finding an uptake in the new world of hairy-armed long-distance lorry drivers. The Yorkie bar of mints: indeed, almost a phallic symbol.

Bendicks Bittermint

Created in 1931, the Bendicks Bittermint conjures an aura of bygone salon sophistication, helped by a provenance in Mayfair and a Royal Warrant, which indicates that Brenda and the firm enjoy a Bittermint or two in front of the telly. Aristocratic aspiration is suggested by the posh packaging and dark chocolate, and the word "bitter" is key - Bendicks people wouldn't deign to eat anything so vulgar as "sweets". Bendicks Bittermints were first started by a Mr Benson and Colonel Dickson, who sound like Cluedo characters, but who really existed. Apparently.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
science
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
tv
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were pictured embracing in 2012
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior SAP MM Consultant, £50,000 - £60,000, Birmingham

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP MM C...

SAP BW BO

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BW BO - 6 MONTHS - LONDON London (Gr...

HSE Manger - Solar

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: HSE Mana...

Data Governance Manager (Solvency II) – Contract – Up to £450 daily rate, 6 month (may go Permanent)

£350 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently looking...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried