Chewing gum: the next 5,000 years

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COVID-19 poses serious challenges in the impulse products market, but this cannot end the 5,000-year history of chewing gum. Manufacturers are responding to the changes with innovation and functional products, which were presented by the Association of Hungarian Confectionery Manufacturers at the end of July.

Fifty years ago, in 1970, the Csemege Confectionery Company recorded the first full year of Hungarian chewing gum production, so this significant anniversary provided a special opportunity for the roundtable discussion. The representatives of three companies currently dominating the domestic market participated: the Hungarian-owned Chocco Garden based in Szabadszállás (the successor of the former factory of the Budapest Confectionery Company), MARS, which owns the classic Wrigley brand, and Mondelez, which owns the Halls and Trident brands.

– At least 60 percent of chewing gum consumption is related to activities outside the home, mainly chewing on the go, at work, at school, and buying impulsively at counters around checkouts, so in the first wave of the corona virus epidemic, with many people staying at home and online shopping, adversely affected this product category, said Sándor Sára, the managing director of Chocco Garden and the president of the Association of Hungarian Confectionery Manufacturers, at the event, which was broadcast live on the Internet. – This year is unlikely to be a year of chewing gum.

However, Dr. Róbert Török, chief museologist and deputy director of the Hungarian Museum of Commerce and Hospitality, which hosted the event, provided an overview of the market by reviving more than five thousand years of chewing gum. Archaeologists excavated the oldest relic to date, a piece of tar from birch bark containing tooth marks, in what is now Finland. Tar has antiseptic properties, so it may have played a significant role in oral care at the time, and was sometimes used as a dental filling too. According to later sources, the soldiers of Alexander the Great chewed wild mint, the Eskimos gnawed on whale skin, and the peoples of West Africa chewed the fruit of the kola nut tree. In the Middle Ages, parsley was used to alleviate oral smells, and after the great geographical discoveries, our ancestors also bit into coffee beans and tobacco leaves. Rubber chewing also set out from America on its world-conquering journey. The Mayans made a chewing gum called chicle from a tree botanically known as Archas sapota, which was used, among other things, to reduce the sense of hunger and thirst.

The beginnings of chewing gum production in Hungary

The first commercially available chewing gum in the classical sense of the word was based on the spruce resin used by the North American Indians, and John. B. Curtis began selling it in 1848 in the state of Maine in the United States. In the 1860s, American inventor Thomas Adams, who experimented with chicle, created a kind of rubbery material for industrial production. The habit of chewing gum soon spread across the country and the Adams chewing gum with a tutti-frutti taste, which was later sold in Hungary as well, could already be bought in 1888 from the vending machines of the New York railway network.

Although public belief holds that chewing gum was brought to Europe by American soldiers in the two world wars, it appeared on our continent much earlier. This is also supported by the oldest Hungarian chewing gum advertisement, which Róbert Török discovered in one of the 1902 issues of Budapest Hírlap. The spread of this American passion in Hungary can be dated even earlier, as the popularized Ricy chewing gum, according to the ad, was already available in pharmacies, drugstores, spice and delicatessen shops, in many flavours.

Through economic development and trade relations, it also appeared in Europe and Hungary at the beginning of the history of chewing gum, although it was viewed controversially and was considered both healthy and harmful, and at times considered a rarity, status symbol, or even a shortage item. Between the two wars, for example, the Adams chewing gum was especially prevalent in bourgeois and artistic circles in Hungary, while after World War II it was difficult to obtain, meanwhile intensifying anti-capitalist propaganda in the 1950s also stigmatized the moral-destroying American custom.

However, this did not change the fact that demand and supply and fashion dictated, so by the end of the decade it had become necessary to produce domestic chewing gum, which according to a contemporary article by Magyar Nemzet was first started in 1959 by the plants of the Győri Biscuit and Wafer Factory. However, the real breakthrough ball gum was launched by the Csemege Confectionery Factory ten years later, the chief museologist explained.

At the end of the 1960s, Hungary imported chewing gum worth about $ 50,000, so the Csemege factory bought a French chewing gum production line for almost the same amount. Production began in 1969, initially making 24 quintals of gum balls and pellet-shaped gums a day from rubber. In the pilot plant, which was intended to test a future new factory, the business started to take off so much that by 1973 it had already produced half a million pieces of gum a day, now made of a synthetic material. Production and supply also expanded in the 1980s, with the appearance of the cigarette gum, for example, and the factory also entered the West German market, and then several other countries around the world through the German partner.

Antal Zöld, the retired deputy CEO of the Csemege Confectionery Factory, who participated in the launch of Hungarian chewing gum production, also shared his personal experiences of the beginnings with the audience as a guest of honour at the round table.

Innovation with functional products

Last year, nearly one million tons of chewing gum were consumed worldwide, according to Euromonitor International’s 2019 data, while in Hungary we chew about 2,000 tons a year, i.e. we spend an average of HUF 2,000 per capita on chewing gum. As a comparison in the USA, the world’s largest market, the figure is USD 12, about HUF 3,500 at today’s exchange rate.

Although the data of recent years will hardly be repeated by the domestic market in 2020, the market participants in the current difficult period also look ahead, if you will, to the next five thousand years. Their power of innovation does not falter, the latest product developments are about products enriched with various minerals, trace elements and other food supplements, which not only give the pleasure of chewing, but are also healthy and delicious. From this point of view, sugar-free gums, for example, have always been a particularly healthy product group in the confectionery industry, as chewing improves oral hygiene, strengthens teeth and chewing muscles, and in many cases relaxes, said Sára Sándor.

Debuting in 1964, Trident was the first sugar-free chewing gum to contain three enzymes to help prevent tartar formation. The brand now belongs to the Mondelez International group, which once appeared on the domestic chewing gum market ten years ago, only to return in 2018 with a chewing gum based on cough suppressant candies, also available in the sugar-free version of Halls. The group is planning for the long run under the Halls Gum brand, said Péter Kertész, government and corporate communications consultant at Mondelez Hungária Kft. At the beginning of 2020 the company launched the pellet-shaped dragee version of the gum in several flavours, and by the end of the year they are preparing a study of the changing consumer habits.

Attila Sófalvi, the country director of MARS Magyarország Kft., also known for the Orbit chewing gum, said that after the strong start of the year, a 20-60 percent monthly decrease in turnover was registered in domestic retail chains. However at the same time, sales increased in international discount stores, which covered the complete range of goods for people’s shopping needs. They try to respond to the new situation with, among other things, an online display of impulse buying, which evokes a checkout zone, but added that in the long run they see the solution in expanding their offering with innovative products.

Chocco Garden operates the only classic chewing gum plant in Central and Eastern Europe, said Anna Benke, the company’s business development director. Founded thirty years ago, the original German machines are still in use, in addition to next-generation technology, and 70 percent of their Crazy Gummi products are exported to many countries around the world, from Canada through Brazil and Israel to Japan. They have to meet extremely diverse consumer needs, so consistent quality management is just as important to them as continuous product development, Anna Benke said. Chocco Garden’s innovative products include French fries shaped chewing gum for connoisseurs, for example, but the future lies in functional chewing gum. For example the stimulating Energy Gum, enriched with caffeine, guarana and vitamins, was launched two years ago and is now available in green tea, multivitamins and cocoa -flavonoid superimmune as well as a stress-relieving versions containing zinc and magnesium. In addition to the contents, the looks will also be updated, and with the introduction of a Danish foiling technology, chewing gums with a hidden tattoo pattern in the packaging will hit stores later this year.