In recent decades, chewing gum has been inextricably linked with youth—especially teenagers perceived as being cool (see: every one of the popular girls in the film Clueless). Before that, in the 1950s, gum was used by filmmakers as a way to identify "lowly" characters like gangsters and prostitutes. As early as 1898, British officials were warning the public about the health dangers of American chewing gum.
Gum's turn in the spotlight may be ending, however. In a report, Nicholas Fereday, executive director and senior analyst of food and consumer trends for Rabobank, has surveyed the state of the gum market and discovered some surprising data: The $4 billion gum industry has gone into freefall, with sales down 11% and volume down 20% in the past five years. No type of gum is immune—everything from sugar-free gum to bubble gum is experiencing the drop in sales. What's going on?
One of the big culprits, Fereday believes, is the growing national obsession with all things natural—something that many brands have used to their advantage because the FDA doesn't have a hard and fast definition of what natural actually means on food labels.
Take a look at any gum label and you can see the problem. Wrigley's Doublemint Gum ingredient list—including corn syrup, aspartame, acesulfame K, and soy lecithin—has few things that any consumer would be able to identify as natural. Sugar-free gum isn't any better. And as Fereday points out, trans fats are often used in the gum manufacturing process.
Another possible factor in the decline of gum: a lack of innovation. Caffeinated gum has been a huge marketing failure; in 2010, Wrigley was forced to stop selling its Alert caffeinated gum after FDA discussions about safety.
Kids also just don't seem to be that into excited about gum anymore. Maybe they're trying to save money post-recession—or maybe, Fereday speculates, there's a larger cultural shift going on, where it's no longer seen as cool to chew gum.
Mints are picking up the slack. While gum sales have dropped precipitously, mint sales have grown nearly 20% in the last five years (power mints like Altoids and Ice Breakers are up 27%). Altoids are not necessarily any more natural than gum, but they do have fewer ingredients. They're also more discreet.
If the gum industry wants to right itself, it will need to start thinking about producing more "natural" gums that at least have pronounceable ingredients. Fereday suggests that the industry would also do well to emphasize gum's healthiness (it helps prevent tooth decay!) while not alienating kids, who don't necessarily care about dental hygiene. All is not lost for the gum industry. It just needs a makeover.