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.

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