You are certainly familiar with bad breath (unfortunately). Just like everyone else.
Maybe it was just the anxiety of having not pristine breath before a date.
Or maybe it was the bad breath of someone else that was sitting near to you in the metro.
Whatever the situation, sometimes you would have given anything to get rid of bad breath with some chewing gum or whatever other remedy (for you, or to offer to your neighbor).
Personally I was absolutely a fan of chewing gums, and of their classic minty freshness; when you could not brush your teeth properly they were a lifesaver, easy to buy, easy to carry.
But then I discovered what really is hidden inside most chewing gums, and I was shocked!
A brief history of chewing gums
In the early days of chewing gums, the base material was a natural gum produced from the sapodilla or manilkara trees. Aztecs and Mayas traditionally chewed this gum to clean their teeth and freshen their breath (even if they considered disreputable to chew it in public).
Chicle-based chewing gums were produced since the last decades of 1800 in the US and by the start of the XX century they were extremely popular. When during the WWII the American soldiers brought with them their gums the habit spread in Europe and around the world. The demand for gum became so unsustainable for the limited central american production (already the sapodilla trees had been decimated by over extraction of their latex) that the industry started to look for new alternatives. Oil provided the answer, and the chewing gum producers thrived using synthetic rubbers (also much cheaper than natural gums).
So nowadays a synthetic, petroleum-based rubber is the base of chewing gums (and one of the biggest producer is goodyear, yes, those that make car-tires).
Approximately 100000 tons of chewing gums are produced and become waste every year: they are the second most common form of litter after cigarette butts, because 90% of the gums are just thrown in the environment (or hidden under school desks...).
The environmental problem of chewing gums is also economic, considering that it can cost up to 2 euro to remove each wad of gum from the streets and pavements
There are obviously many possible ways to make this industry more sustainable, for example an UK based company is now producing chicle-based sustainably sourced chewing gums, and we can try to sensitize people to the problem of gum wads pollution, but for me it was simpler to just stop buying them!
Why looking for a natural breath freshener?
I felt better, with a lighter conscience, but I also missed the mint-fresh breath and I wanted it back, so I begun my investigation to find more ecologic and traditional alternatives.
I started studying traditional cultures: having a fresh breath was a concern in ancient times too, after all, and here's what I found:
The breath mints of the ancients
1 - Mastic
Greeks used to chew the resin of lentisk (or mastic tree) that is called mastic (the name comes from the Greek for “to chew”). It helps digestion, and is an excellent breath freshener. Use of mastic is cited in the Bible as a longstanding practice
2 - Muckwas
Mukhwas is an indian traditional after-meal mouth freshener snack. Fennel seeds are the base, with the addition of sesame and anise seeds, coconut, and sometimes rock sugar pieces sweeten the mix.
4 - Miswak
In all Arab countries is very common to use chewing sticks made from the root of the Salvadora Persica shrub to clean the teeth. The name of these sticks is Miswak or Siwak and due to their antimicrobial properties they are very efficient in maintaining a correct oral hygiene (even the World Health Organisation recommended their use). They also have a pleasant (even if quite strong) taste and aroma.
5 - Cinnamon
Ancient Egyptians made a breath mint mixing honey with cinnamon, myrrh and frankincense, compacting this mix into a sort of candy and chewing or sucking it if necessary.
5 - Fresh herbs
Fresh sage, mint leaves and parsley also were/are chewed for the same purpose in different countries
6 - Cardamom
In India and Morocco (and also in ancient Egypt) people chew cardamom pods after meals as an aid for digestion and to freshen the breath (cardamom is also my personal favourite, as you can read in the about page)
7 - Clove
Iraqi people traditionally chew cloves to freshen their breath. Eugenol, the major compound in clove essential oil, has a strong antibacterial activity and this can help in reducing the population of bacteria that causes bad breath
What the science says
Many of the traditional methods works because these herbs and spices contain powerful antimicrobial substances that contrast the bacteria that cause bad breath, like Candida Albicans and Streptococcus thermophilus (sources: Journal of dental hygiene, Journal of Intercultural Ethnopharmacology).
Natural breath fresheners are an easy addition to everyone's routine, they are easily available (at least some of them, like cardamom, cloves, fennel and anise seeds) and they could really substitute gums to get rid of bad breath and help us have a spicy-fresh mouth instead!
And if you want to read about my personal experience, you'll find it here
A correct oral hygiene is always recommended (tooth brushing 2-3 times a day, flossing regularly, tongue scraping): the information reported here are only for cultural and historical reference and do not aim to substitute the advise of authorized medical practitioners.
This post was updated on January 18th, 2019