There are few things I enjoy more than treating myself to a piece of candy. I’m not a huge fan of sweets, but every once in a while, I’ll grab a bag of Skittles, Sour Patch Kids or even just a basic restaurant mint on my way out the door. Those mints, innocuous as they may look, are also one of the more mysterious candies on the market, due to the way they dissolve. If you’ve ever thought to yourself—”this mint feels strange”—you’re not alone!
The vast majority of mints—particularly those wrapped in clear plastic with red stripes around the sides (Starlite is one of the major manufacturers of these candies)—have an unusual habit of forming tiny holes and dissolving somewhat uneasily as you suck and slurp on the breath-boosting treat. No other candies come to mind when it comes to this bizarre phenomenon, so what makes these basic mints so special?
It’s All In the Process
The ingredients of starlight mints are surprisingly simple—corn syrup, sugar, various coloring dyes and peppermint oil. Before they can all come together to form the perfect, refreshing little mints, they actually begin as two different colors; white and pink. The taffy-like substance that is created when the corn syrup and sugar are combined is very flexible, but in order to get pure colors of white and pink/red, the substance must be pressed and stretched many times until the color becomes uniform.
During that process of folding and stretching (think of the rotating, in-folding arms of an old-time taffy machine), a great deal of air becomes trapped in the viscous substance. The more uniform the color becomes, the more air bubbles have been trapped. These aren’t standard air bubbles like you might imagine coming out of your nose while you’re underwater. In the mint material, these air bubbles compress into long microtubules, forming a strange little network within the candy, even though you’ll never see it on the surface. If any of these small pockets or imperfections are visible, the Quality Control workers would likely remove the mint from the conveyor line.
Now, once the two colors are thoroughly mixed, they can be narrowed into long tubes, swirled together and allowed to partially dry. The narrow tubes of Starlite mint ingredients, with their microscopic tubules of air, are then passed through another machine that chops them into mint-sized pieces, which are then spun and filtered to round out the edges, leaving a perfectly round mint with a ring of small red stripes on the edge. From here, the candy is ready to be consumed by people just like you.
The Appearance of the Holes
Once these delectable little candies make their way to your mouth, that’s where the strangeness usually sets in. If you are sucking on a regular mint, it might take between 5 and 20 minutes to dissolve, depending on how much you’re moving the mint around, as well as how much saliva you may have, etc. Basically, your saliva begins to break down the ingredients and components in the mint, which are soluble, and the mint material begins to disappear.
As the mint gets smaller in your mouth, after about 1/2 of the volume of the candy is gone, you’ve probably noticed that the smooth outer texture has begun to change. Instead, the surface of the mint has become pocked and somewhat rough. What has happened is that your saliva has begun to wear away the outer layer of the mint, which has revealed some of those small microtubules. This exposes more surface area, where saliva can begin to break down those small pockmarks into larger “divots”. It is at this point that your tongue would begin noticing the textural change, and the process would continue to snowball.
The mint will continue to dissolve, eventually looking as though it has been blown through with a tiny shotgun, until it breaks into even smaller pieces or disappears completely. So, while a peppermint might start off smooth and uniform in its texture, it won’t stay that way for long once you pop it into your mouth!