Back in the day, it seemed that every kid on earth chewed gum ... presumably because you could blow bubbles or stick it in someone's hair.
Older, slightly more sophisticated teenagers and young adults tended to eschew the chewing and instead used breath mints ... presumably so they would be ready if someone really cute wanted to kiss them.
Bubbles and kissing are no doubt just as popular as ever. But gum and mints are not. Gum in particular has fallen out of favor, with U.S. gum sales falling 11% in the past four years.
One reason for this decline is pretty clear, and it may be the same reason diet soda sales are falling. Consumers, particularly younger consumers, aren't crazy about artificial sweeteners.
But two new types of sweeteners in gum and mint formulations might give the sector a boost.
Europe backs Xylitol
Sugar-free gum is so common now that the phrase carries little marketing weight. If anything, it tends to raise concerns about how the product is sweetened. One of the most common artificial sweeteners in the gum and mint section of your local grocer is aspartame. It's also perhaps the most reviled artificial sweetener among Internet food activists.
New brands of gum, anxious to break in to the notoriously tough-to-enter candy market, have begun to emphasize that they don't contain aspartame. The packaging of Pur gum, for example, displays the phrase "Aspartame Free" in letters nearly as big as those in the brand name. The company's tag line is "Kick Aspartame."
Pur gum is made with xylitol, a sweetener derived from plants. Xylitol got a tremendous boost in the marketplace when the European Food Safety Authority ruled in 2008 that gums and mints made with 100% xylitol actually reduced dental plaque.
According to studies tailor-made to get parents to buy gum for their kids, it turns out that xylitol also prevents ear infections. All that good news was enough for the US Army to recommend soldiers and their families begin chewing xylitol-sweetened gums.
Other new-era brands that promote their use of xylitol include Leaf and Spry. Bigger name brands such as Hershey's Ice Breakers began adding xylitol to products as the positive press for the sweetener grew.
The downside of xylitol is that it has a laxative effect when consumed in large doses. That's a nasty trait it shares with sorbitol and maltitol. Another downside is that when used in gum, the flavor of xylitol tends to fade quickly -- in about 10 to 15 minutes.
Wrigley's stevia breakthrough
The other big winner in the anti-aspartame movement is stevia, a sweetener made from the leaf of the stevia rebaudiana plant species.
Stevia doesn't act like a laxative. And the taste last for a longer time than xylitol's. But stevia has a different shortcoming: it tastes more like licorice than sugar, and it can leave a metallic aftertaste.
Stevia has been much tougher to use in gum and mints, however. As a result there have been very few companies who have launched stevia-based gums or mints.
But recent news suggests that food scientists have found a way to blend stevia for gums and mints without sacrificing taste.
Last week came word that Wrigley has begun selling a mint flavored with a stevia blend across multiple European markets. That's a first for the company.
It's too early to tell what this means for xylitol or for aspartame, but it would suggest that the gum/mint world is about to change.
Which is fine, as long as things don't change too much. Our hope is that Certs, the first breath mint sold nationally in the United States, continues to use its trademarked Retsyn (which is nothing more than a blend of copper gluconate, partially hydrogenated oil, and sugar or aspartame.)
Retsyn may have been nothing more than a marketing ploy, but the ads were fabulous.
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