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The future is chewing gum

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Ahead of the bubble, gum snaps into place as a modern-age economic indicator.


Giant Bubble Gum Bubble

That’s how the world’s richest man, Warren Buffett, plans to get even richer.

Last week the American investor committed $6.5 billion (U.S.) for a 10 per cent stake in the Wrigley brand, a world leader in the bubble biz.

Buffett’s betting the gum market will stay chewy during the economic downturn that is darkening skies in the United States.

And he might be right. During the last economic recession in North America in the ’90s, food spending dipped drastically, but candy consumption stayed strong.

In fact, some confection makers say sweets sales are an inverse indicator of the economy. Big purchases go on hold during recession, but a cheerful chew never put anybody into bankruptcy. The gum industry is worth an estimated $19.5 billion a year worldwide.

From bubble gum to sugarless, there’s a mouth-boggling proliferation of forms and flavors: spicy cinnamon sticks, lemon-lime lozenges, even explode-in-your-mouth pineapple pillows. Sex-ified packaging bumps it up a notch, with its innovative shapes and colors that turn packages into pretty purse accessories or hot dashboard décor.

What started as a fun candy is now functional. Since the 1980's, sugarless gums have ruled the marketplace as gums that contain the sweetener xylitol, have been proven to fight tooth decay.

Chewing gum may have other health benefits, too. A 2006 study by doctors at California’s Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, published in the journal Archives of Surgery, showed that gum helped patients recover from colon surgery faster. And a British study published in 2002 in the journal Appetite said chewers did better on memory tests, though subsequent studies have challenged that finding.

As to whether gumming prevents snacking, and therefore promotes weight loss, the jury’s still out. But that hasn’t stopped contestants on the show The Biggest Loser from chomping Extra gum at every opportunity. Wrigley’s strategic placement of the sugarless gum on the show about losing weight was the company’s first attempt to market gum specifically to dieters.

Over the years, gums infused with drugs have tasted moderate success.

Aspergum delivers a shot of aspirin to sore throats, and Nicorette, spiked with nicotine, aims to cut cigarette cravings.

The trend of health-enhancing gum is set to explode.

In a 2006 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, Danish scientists found people absorbed three times more of the antihistamine loratadine when they chewed it as a gum than when they took it as a pill.

That is because medicine in gum enters the bloodstream directly through the lining of the mouth, while pills have to work their way through the digestive system.

Gums containing caffeine are already available in the United States. In Asia, gums contain green tea extract, a powerful antioxidant, and in Finland researchers have created a gum containing cysteine, which may help prevent cancers of the mouth, esophagus and stomach, especially in smokers.

That’s all good news, but eventually, the bubble must pop and cities around the world are stuck with the results, usually on sidewalks, under restaurant tables or attached to the sole of a shoe.

In Toronto, gum comprises more than 30 per cent of litter, according to a 2006 litter audit by the city’s waste department. It’s expensive to remove, so it stays right where it’s laid to rest.

“We tried to educate people to put it in the garbage receptacle,” says Robert Orpin, the city’s director of collection operations. “But there’s a misperception that it’s not litter.”

Gum is garbage. And because it’s made from synthetic rubber, it’s not biodegradable.

But it is recyclable. One Toronto-based company, Envyrobubble, created specialized gum disposal bins in order to collect it and turn it into fertilizer. Ontario Place and Seneca College have units, for example, but gum recycling hasn’t gone mainstream.

“We haven’t really sold that many,” admits Ornella DeCola, co-founder of Envryobubble, noting the company is designing a smaller recycling unit that could improve public acceptance.

Other municipalities are trying gum boards on hydro poles, which encourage passersby to stick it instead of spit it. The boards are coated in peelable plastic, which is removed daily.

In some places, unofficial gum boards have evolved into folk art. In California’s San Luis Obispo, for example, Bubble Gum Alley has been blowing since 1960 and now attracts tourists who want to add a wad of their own.

Gum companies say they’re doing their part by researching biodegradable gums. But they’re keeping trade secrets and won’t say how close they are to actually producing environmentally friendly gum.

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