Whether customers chew it while chopping onions to prevent tears, munch on it instead of a caloric afternoon snack to keep the waistline in check, or use it to freshen breath, gum has plenty of proven uses. Perhaps that's why the business of chewing gum has stuck with us ever since the ancient Greeks started chomping on the resin of the mastic tree and the Mayans began sinking their teeth into the sap of the sapodilla tree.
Today, gum's popularity shows no signs of becoming stale. Sales of gums and mints in natural products stores exceeded $2.5 million this year, up more than 12 percent from the previous year, according to SPINS, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research and consulting firm for the natural products industry. Here's a blow-by-blow of the freshest natural-gum trends.
Gum's a natural
What separates natural gum from the rest of the pack is the absence of anything artificial—flavoring, coloring, preservatives and sweeteners. By contrast, conventional gums often contain a chemist's mix of synthetic and artificial ingredients, such as suspected carcinogenic preservatives like BHT and the sweetener aspartame, which has been associated (though inconclusively) with rising brain-tumor rates and weight gain.
These days, conventional gums also focus on "novelty," according to Deborah Schimberg, president and founder of Glee Gum, a natural-gum manufacturer in Providence, R.I. "For example, they came out with a gum for kids that turns teeth blue," she says. "Changing the color of teeth doesn't happen naturally." Natural-gum manufacturers aren't driven by innovation made possible by chemicals, Schimberg says.
"Natural gums are better for you than regular gum," Schimberg says. In fact, research shows that chewing gum can reduce hunger and decrease calorie intake, improve the ability to learn, increase blood flow to the brain and promote a healthy mouth.
Functional - and fun
Recently, chewing gum got an even bigger boost from added ingredients. Whereas yesterday's gum was simply meant to freshen breath, today's gum may whiten teeth, boost energy, decrease appetite and more. The name of the game is functional, and functional gum—or nutraceutical gum—allows manufacturers to use gum as a delivery system for other substances, such as health-enhancing supplements, herbs and vitamins.
Retailers should note that a "dietary supplement" must be "ingested," according to FDA regulations. Gums and sprays could make the argument that saliva containing ingredients released from the gum are swallowed and ingested, but this would bring to question whether there is an efficacious amount of the ingredient to have the purported function claimed.
Fargo, N.D.-based Peelu—along with several other manufacturers—also use multitasking xylitol in some of their gum lines. This natural sugar alcohol adds sweetness to gum and doubles as a cavity fighter. Several studies show that xylitol helps prevent and reverse tooth decay. "It seems to change the flora in the mouth," says Mark Breiner, DDS, author of Whole Body Dentistry (Quantum Health Press, 1999). "It reduces the Streptococcus mutans bacteria that thrive on sugar." This type of bacteria, which sticks to the surface of teeth, is the leading cause of dental caries.
Xylitol is a type of sugar, Breiner explains, but not one on which bacteria can thrive. Without food, the bacteria starve in the presence of xylitol. Regular sugar, on the other hand, makes the mouth more acidic, and bacteria grow in that environment, he says. And what about sugar-free gum? No study yet has shown that sugar-free gums reduce or reverse decay like xylitol does, according to Breiner. Even more, xylitol's benefits last long after you stop chewing, he says.
Naturals manufacturers are realizing that to have kids benefit from xylitol, they need to make flavors that appeal to them. Glendale, Calif.-based Tundra Trading makes its gum in six flavors including fruit and chocolate.
Gum gets a conscience
Bucking the trends followed by many gum manufacturers, Glee Gum is less about function and more about putting social, economic and environmental issues in a fun package. The company's means for reaching that end? Gum base.
Gum base puts the chew in chewing gum by binding ingredients together and creating a smooth texture. In the beginning, the Mayans chewed the sap of the sapodilla tree, creating one of the original gum bases—now known as chicle. Today, almost all gum base is concocted from synthetic materials, which is easier and cheaper to make than gum base from natural materials, Schimberg says.
Glee Gum is one exception. The company has partnered with Mexican chicleros, who tap rain forest trees and harvest the sap, which is then turned into chicle. "The job of harvesting chicle results in people having an income from the forest, and in the trees remaining standing," Schimberg says. "Without this income, the only way to make money is cutting down trees and selling them for timber."
Will a piece of gum save the planet? Perhaps not, but it can help make a positive difference, according to Schimberg. "We feel like gum should be something that's fun to chew," she says. "At the same time, if you're going to chew gum, why not chew chicle? That consumer choice makes a difference for preservation and conservation of the rain forest and the people who live there."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p.84