Functional chewing gum, once seen almost solely as a novelty or niche product, is now the subject of serious study by scientists. Nicotine, caffeinated and breath-freshening gums have all been met with varying degrees of success in the marketplace. It wasn’t that long ago that gums claiming diverse and dubious benefits ranging from an improved karaoke singing voice to larger breasts were making the rounds in Asia and the U.S.
Researchers are now developing chewing gum as a delivery system for many types of drugs and supplements. While this type of product research is typically focused on highly specialized uses, it may only be a matter of time before functional gum makes its way into the consumer market in a big way.
Research scientists at the University of Kentucky's College of Pharmacy have developed a chewing gum intended to temporarily replace toothpaste and toothbrushes for soldiers in the field. The scientists infused the gum with an antimicrobial known simply as KSL that is both an anti-adhesive and an abrasive agent intended to effectively help fight plaque buildup.
According to U.S. Army Dental and Trauma Research Detachment Commander Col. Geoffrey Thompson, approximately 15% of all U.S. Army sick calls are related to dental problems. In a war zone such as Iraq or Afghanistan where a sick call typically requires transport to a nearby medical facility, the value of the project becomes immediately apparent. "It’s something that is going to be very beneficial," said professor Pat DeLuca, who began the research about five years ago.
Clinical trials for the gum are currently scheduled to begin as soon as April. And if all goes well, the U.S. Army will then find a manufacturer to produce the gum for soldiers in the field. After that, it is only a matter of time before the gum makes its way to the consumer market.
A chewing gum able to detect disease may also be on the way. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced funding for research into ways for diagnosing disease in developing nations. Among the Grand Challenges Explorations grant money dispersed in 2009 was a generous chunk intended to develop a gum that can detect malaria in a person’s saliva. The grant money, which was awarded to Andrew Fung of the University of California (Los Angeles) will fund research to develop something called MALiVA. A two-step diagnostic tool: The gum is chewed then scanned for the presence of malaria, eliminating more costly and time-consuming tests.
Tejal Desai, a professor at the University of California (San Francisco) is looking to reengineer gum entirely as an effective drug delivery system. Using nanotechnology, she is seeking to infuse gum with tiny capsules -- essentially small pills -- that can survive a trip through the stomach’s acid and digestive system to be absorbed into the bloodstream. This technology could eliminate the use of needles to administer drugs such as insulin.
In Nairobi, a Danish firm, Gumlink Group, is looking to fight malnutrition with a special gum packed with a whopping 375 micrograms of Vitamin A. The gum, which is targeted toward children, is designed to help fight malnutrition. The well-established Gumlink Group is already marketing a full line of functional gum for the consumer market that contains things like caffeine, fluoride, natural antioxidants and ginseng that have met with growing popularity in Western Europe.
In the future, these types of innovative gums could provide the basis for a host of enhanced or functional gum products. Consumers have already enthusiastically accepted vitamin-enriched water, as well as soft drinks infused with everything from ginseng to goji berry juice. In the bulk vending arena, the functional gum concept, whether in ball gum or chicle format, could fetch a premium price and expand the chewing demographic.