Specialty Chewing Gum: Stretching the Truth

Chewing-gum-makers want to revive sagging sales by introducing functional gum that supposedly provides benefits. However, no regulatory agency approves functional gum before the gum hits the market, and few rules govern gum manufacturers’ marketing claims.

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Middle-distance runner Nick Symmonds, who is a five-time U.S. national champion in the 800-meter run, hopes that the gum that he chews will give him a boost when he tries to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Off the track, Symmonds is a biochemist who helped to introduce a brand of caffeinated energy gum, Run Gum, in October 2014. The gum costs $18 for 12 two-piece packets. Each piece contains 50 mg of caffeine, 20 mg of taurine, and vitamins B-6 and B-12. Before he helped to develop Run Gum, Symmonds tried drinking coffee, espresso and energy drinks before he ran a race. He says none of those products seemed to provide him with the same amount of energy at “the starting line” as his gum did.

Run Gum isn’t the only brand in the energy-gum race. We found 14 types of energy gum that are for sale in the United States and at least 50 other types of functional gum, which is gum that’s marketed as giving you some benefit, such as dietary supplementation. Functional gum includes nicotine gum, which has existed since the 1980s. However, in the past 3 years, gum-makers introduced new types of functional gum to boost the sagging gum market.

IRI, which is a market-research company, says total U.S. gum sales decreased by $300 million from 2010 to 2013. In the 12-month period that ended in August 2013 alone, sales plunged by $140 million.

Mitsue Konishi, who is a food-research analyst at Datamonitor Consumer, says manufacturers believe that developing different types of functional gum is the best way to boost sales.

As a result, in the past 3 years, a glut of functional-gum products has been introduced. These products are pitched with claims of providing energy, boosting immunity, delivering antioxidants, furnishing a psychological edge, improving cognitive ability, increasing stamina, promoting weight loss, reducing stress and delivering dietary supplements. Global Industry Analysts, which conducts market research, says that in 2010 about 11.5 percent of gum that was sold in the United States had a functional ingredient. (That’s the most recent estimate that we found.)

We found that most functional-gum manufacturers are niche players who sell their products online. However, Mondelez and Wrigley, which control 92 percent of U.S. gum sales and most of the shelf space for gum in drugstores and chain grocery stores, also sell functional gum. Mondelez’s Stride Spark gum includes vitamins B-6 and B-12, which the company claims provide an energy boost. Wrigley has no functional gum in the United States, but it sells Orbit Balance Green Mint + Magnesium in Germany and says the gum helps to build muscles.

According to International Chewing Gum Association, gum companies are forging agreements and partnerships with pharmaceutical companies to create and introduce more types of functional gum in the next 2 years. Consequently, even more claims and ingredients will enter the market. However, gum experts tell us that little independent evidence proves that most types of functional gum provide any benefit.

WHAT'S INSIDE? Eight experts tell us that chewing gum has an advantage over other delivery systems, such as a drink or a pill, because gum can disperse antioxidants, medications, minerals and vitamins into the bloodstream through the buccal mucosa, or the slippery lining that’s inside the cheeks, within 15 minutes. In comparison, it takes an average of 35 minutes for a drink or a pill to dispense an ingredient into the bloodstream through the gastrointestinal lining. For example, a 2006 study by University of Southern Denmark researchers found that study volunteers absorbed about three times as much of an antihistamine when they chewed it in gum instead of ingesting it in tablet form.

Unfortunately, chewing gum has no standard recipe. Food and Drug Administration requires little transparency from U.S. manufacturers in the ingredient list of any chewing gum, and experts tell us that all types of functional gum can be marketed without the disclosure of convincing scientific evidence that their ingredients provide any sort of benefit.

FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 allows manufacturers to use the generic term “gum base” in their proprietary ingredient lists. Gum base can include any of 46 ingredients, including plastic, wax, polyvinyl acetate (aka carpenter’s glue) and glycerol ester, which is the main ingredient in industrial-grade varnish. (For a look at some of the unusual ingredients, see “What’s in Gum Base?”) Glycerol ester also is used in soft drinks, but federal regulations limit its quantity to under 100 parts per million. The rules don’t restrict the amount of glycerol ester that’s allowed in chewing gum.

What Types of Claims?

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Because gum base can contain any amount of the 46 ingredients, thousands of gum formulations are possible, and every formulation will have different delivery properties, according to five gum scientists with whom we spoke. In other words, the properties of gum base determine how many ingredients that a piece of gum can hold, how much of those ingredients is released as someone chews, how quickly they’re dispersed and how much of those ingredients a chewer absorbs through his/her buccal mucosa.

“Chewing gum is a good delivery system, but the question is, ‘How do you keep something in your mouth for an appropriate amount of time and make sure ingredients come out of that gum?’” says Christine Wu, who is a food-science professor at University of Illinois. “We still need innovative methods to deliver what we want to deliver and show that it’s efficient.”

Companies conduct clinical studies on functional gum, but they don’t make those studies available to consumers or independent experts. Experts tell us that consumers have no way to know for certain whether interactions among the ingredients of a proprietary gum base dull or eliminate the effectiveness of the functional ingredients.

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