Root beer and mouthwash, a never ending controversy between North Americans and most other cultures
Why is root beer considered a delicacy in Northern America, and undrinkable in many other countries, to the point that it is almost impossible to find it in Europe for instance? Why is it considered as tasting mouthwash in a lot of parts of the world? Why do mints like US Polo mints produce the same effect?
There are lots of questions around this on the net, and so far, no answer. Here it is eventually!
Well, there is one chemical present both in most root beers, in some mouthwash like most European dentist mouthwash (or even Listerine, although it is not the most obvious example as we'll see). It is also found many North American mint sweets, including interestingly, within the Polo mints variants covering the world, only in the US one.
That chemical, a poison (7g kills an average size adult), is Methyl Salicylate. It has a very potent smell, sometimes compared to "rotting apples". In harmless traces, it gives its highly recognizable smell to root beer, a little bit to Listerine (although lots of other ingredients in Listerine hide it well), to most European dentist mouthwash (a nice association from childhood with pain and therefore highly unpleasant experience), and in US Polo mints (the traditional UK one does not contain it). European mouthwash does not use it as a pleasant perfuming ingredient, but to make it clear that it must be spat, and is not intended to be ingested.
This poison is generated by plants, apparently for their protection. Some generate it only under stress to repell agressions. An entire family of these plants, keeping their leaves during the cold season (hence probably prone to starved animal agressions) are the Wintergreens.
It remains still a mystery why in northern America, the smell of a poison, so potent that most can smell it in traces, is associated with childhood sweetness. Childhood conditioning in the US may have something to do with this, by fighting the natural reaction of the brain, and creating an "acquired taste". Why did somebody introduce this in root beer in the first place? At the time, Americans must have rejected it like the Europeans do today? Remember that root beer, like coke, was a "miracle drug", and was not a soft drink. It had to smell like drug.
A parallel can be drawn with Prussic acid (Hydrogen cyanide), a very potent poison too, which can be perceived by most (but not everybody) even in faint traces. It gives their special smell to bitter almonds. For some reason, some people love the smell, or even do not perceive it at all, while most associate it with danger. "A hydrogen cyanide concentration of 300 mg/m3 in air will kill a human within about 10 minutes. A hydrogen cyanide concentration of 3500 ppm (about 3200 mg/m3) will kill a human in about 1 minute." (from Wikipedia).
Natural selection is responsible for the fact that some poisons appear in nature, to fight potential threats. It is also responsible for allowing predators to perceive these poisons at trace levels. Examples of acquired taste, fighting natural reactions of the brain, exist in all cultures. Examples that come to mind: foul smelling cheese in France, or rotten smelling durian in a few places in Asia.
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