Each week, Wendyl Nissen takes a packaged food item and decodes what the label tells you about its contents.

I was asked to look at these mints by a friend who employs a lot of staff and was concerned that they were on "everyone's desks, all the time". "Are they safe?"

My first reaction after buying this little tin of mints was that there was no way I could read the ingredients standing in the supermarket to get a gauge of what was in them. Surely this is something you should be able to do before making the decision to purchase? Instead I had to take them home and get out my trusty magnifying glass and once I had deciphered the ingredients I realised that they are printed on the plastic wrapping which is discarded as soon as you open the mints.

Tins of mints like these are a popular choice for people to keep in their handbags, cars and on their desks to give that last-minute fresh breath confidence before a meeting. These ones are sugar-free, which inevitably means aspartame will be in there somewhere.

Ingredients ( in order of greatest quantity):


This is an alcohol found in fruit and seaweed. It is often used as a sugar substitute for diabetics. If consumed to excess it can cause diarrhoea and gastrointestinal disturbances. Eating as little as 10 grams can cause diarrhoea in some children. Each 2g mint has 1.9g of sorbitol so you wouldn't want your children having more than 5 or 6 of these mints in one sitting.

Anti-caking agent (470)
This is salts of fatty acids which have no known adverse health effect.

This will be artificial as it doesn't state otherwise. Peppermint oil is a natural flavouring used by other mint producers which is a good substitute.

Sweeteners (951,950)
The first sweetener is aspartame (951) which has had a very controversial ride in the food industry. Otherwise known as NutraSweet it is a compound prepared from aspartic acid and phenylalanine, which is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. There have been objections made that it might cause brain damage and that when used in soft drinks it deteriorates into toxic levels of methyl alcohol under storage conditions. Neither claim was accepted and it has been approved as a sweetener since 1981. However, aspartame must be avoided by people with the genetic condition phenylketonuria or PKU.

The second sweetener is acesulphame potassium (950) which is a chemical that is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Its approval for use in 1988 was controversial as the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington consumer group, said that animals fed this in two different studies suffered more tumours than others that did not receive the compound. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) said that four long-term animal studies in dogs, mice, and rats had not shown any toxic effects and approved its use.

Colour 132
This is a coal tar dye which gives the colour blue to a food product. It was banned in Norway after concerns that it may cause allergic reactions in some people. It is not recommended for children.

My recommendations: This product comes with a warning in very, very small print that excessive consumption may have a laxative effect. This will be due to the sorbitol, so you wouldn't want to be throwing a whole tin into your mouth, that's for sure.

Many people opt for sugar-free mints because they believe that they have less calories. But if you compare a 2g serve of this sugar-free product, which has just 28kj, with the same sized mint of the same brand, which uses sugar, it has just 34kj, which gives you a tiny energy saving of 6kj. Is it worth it? Others like to keep sugar away from their teeth, which is a good idea, but a 2g mint should be sucked and digested fairly quickly.

If you want a breath freshener, why not go for a bag of mints the way they used to make them? There are some marketed under the name Curiously Strong Mints that have the advantage of using the natural flavouring of peppermint oil and no artificial coal tar dyes. You'll also get more bang for your buck, at $2.89 per 200g as opposed to $2.79 for 34g of this product. But you will have to find a tin to put them in.