His Firm Makes the Oil That Brightens Taste of Your Mouthwash, Toothpaste

Dan Phillips is one of those tall, strapping men in the oil business. Only this oil is not the crude black stuff that gushes from the ground.

It's crystal clear peppermint oil, the kind used in toothpaste and mouthwash.

Phillips is a peppermint oil buyer for A. M. Todd Co., a business based in Kalamazoo, Mich., that supplies flavoring to such firms as William Wrigley Jr. Co., Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, Nabisco (for Life-Savers) and Warner-Lambert (maker of Dentyne, Trident, Chiclets, Listermint, Certs). About half the oil the company purchases is shipped to toothpaste and chewing gum firms.

Mint oil is big business in Oregon, both in the Willamette Valley and here in the central part of the state. For example, two-thirds of the Todd company's 1,000 grower-suppliers are in the Pacific Northwest.

In 1984, 763,000 pounds of peppermint oil were produced in central Oregon, representing about 30% of the world's annual supply. Locally, an acre of mint can produce 80 to 100 pounds of oil, Phillips said, although the average is about 55 pounds.

A standard 55-gallon drum of Madras-area oil, with a net weight of 400 pounds, had a market value of about $5,200 in 1985, roughly $13 a pound. Mint oil from the Willamette Valley in western Oregon sold for about $8.50. To the taste buds, mint oil is overwhelmingly potent. It wouldn't take even half a drop to flavor a whole cheesecake. To give an idea of its strength, swirling a wood pick in oil, then in the batter would be enough flavoring, Phillips said. A mere pint of mint oil can flavor 30,000 sticks of gum.

To harvest the peppermint crop in late summer, a mechanical swather cuts the fields into windrows, which are left for a day or two to dry on the ground. Crews go through with choppers, and the mint is blown into tubs. The tubs are unloaded at small distilleries, many grower-operated, dotted among the farms.

In the stills, steam is forced through the tubs to cook the hay, vaporizing the water and oils. Most of the oil is concentrated in small sacs on the underside of the leaves. The vapor is cooled, condensing it to liquid, which is purchased by buyers such as Phillips. At his warehouse, the last of the water from the bottom of the barrels is drawn off, the drums are weighed, then shipped by rail to the Midwest.

At his Kalamazoo headquarters, Phillips explained, flavor chemists analyze samples with gas chromatographs for mint's basic components: alcohols, ketones and mentha furans. The alcohol content provides the cooling and burning sensation--too high or too low an alcohol level is not desirable, Phillips said. A good oil should not impart a bitter taste or have compounds that make it chemically unstable.

Artificial mint flavoring can be manufactured--and is, by some firms--as a cheaper substitute. But real mint oil contains 156 different chemical compounds, Phillips said, so it's difficult to replicate the quality of the real thing. He likened it to trying to produce artificial honey.

The Todd company, which has been producing essential oil such as peppermint and spearmint since 1869, refines most of the oil through fractionating--reheating it to vapor form--to extract undesirable compounds. It then blends oils to buyers' specifications or sells the oil as is, and its buyers refine it to meet their own standards.

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