Judge Mint Day
Which mints work best on nasty breath?
Breath mints don't really work. No matter which space-age compounds they boast (Retsyn! Neutrazin!), breath mints just temporarily mask your bad breath and foul-tasting mouth by tasting and smelling stronger than the enemy. They don't fundamentally change anything: That would require getting rid of the anaerobic bacteria in your mouth that cause bad breath, and you need to brush and floss and scrape your tongue to do that. Retsyn, for instance, is just natural flavoring, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, and a nutritional supplement called copper gluconate, none of which will kill bacteria.
Still, a mint can provide short-term confidence and temporarily tame your pie-hole stench, plus it can make your mouth taste better. In short, they're your best bet in a pinch, and some mints are well worth having around for emergency situations. A nice lady at the National Confectioners Association told me that in food, drug, and mass-merchandise stores last year, the breath freshener category was booming, up 15.3 percent, while the rest of the candy market grew only 3.2 percent. But which mints are best? I ran a few tests.
Test No. 1: Morning Mouth. Morning mouth is caused by bacteria (plaque) having time to grow overnight. Let's say, after an evening out, you wake up someplace ... unexpected, without a toothbrush. You need to freshen up for the cab ride home to your Colgate. To re-create this, I tried a different mint each morning before brushing my teeth.
Test No. 2: Pungent Food. In general, diet does not cause bad breath, except in the immediate sense that if you eat onions, your mouth smells like onions. To approximate the scenario where you've downed an odorific dish and want to cover your tracks, I bought a jar of minced garlic and shoveled spoonfuls into my mouth, which soon grew alive with foul juices. Then I sent in the mints, reloading with more garlic after each battle. I had to run this test over two nights—by the sixth garlic spoonful, I felt ill.
Test No. 3: Cigarettes. A classic breath-mint foe. They make your mouth smell and taste like ash. To test this, I took big drags off a Camel Light, then swished the smoke around my tongue and gums like an evil mouthwash. I tried a different mint after each cigarette.
After these tests, I ranked the mints from worst to first:
Breath-freshening gums fade in flavor almost instantly. Then you've got a tasteless lump of cud and nowhere good to spit it out. Another weakness: Some gum ingredients, like the chlorophyll in Clorets, are designed to sponge up bad odors. This ends up backfiring, because the gum quickly tastes like your bad breath—yuck.
Dentyne Ice gum tastes alcoholic, like a strange liqueur you try on a whim and later regurgitate violently. That's not because there's alcohol in the gum, which might kill germs, but rather because of a foul tasting sugar-free sweetener called Maltitol. Dentyne Ice's taste, though strong, couldn't beat morning mouth, or any other stenches. Instead, it accompanied them. Like all gums, its flavor gave out within 15 seconds, meaning the awful taste was mitigated by its near-instant fade to cudness.
Clorets tastes bad but not quite as bad. It did nothing for cigarette breath. As the gum hung out in my mouth, the chlorophyll soaked up a smoky flavor, becoming a sort of chewable ashtray.
The lone non-gum in the bottom tier: Penguin Caffeinated Peppermints. These should be perfect for morning mouth, waking you up while freshening your breath. Unfortunately, it takes three Penguin mints to equal the caffeine in one cola. Also, it takes only one Penguin mint to taste like utter crap. What twisted mint sadist is behind these unpalatable flavors?
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.