Chew on this: gum brands stick health claims on their products

When you pick up a pack of sugarless gum on your way to an interview or after drinking a cup of coffee, you could be forgiven for thinking the sticky stuff is a veritable Swiss Army knife for your health. Lately, as this article in The New York Times points out, gum makers have been boosting their marketing in a big way by focusing on a slew of health benefits -- most, but not all, related to your teeth -- they say their products offer.

By all accounts, it's working. According to a research firm cited by the Times, sugarless gum revenues were up by 6% over last year. In a recession economy, that's a lot of chewing, especially since sugarless gum makes up four out of every five sticks chewed.

The Times speculates that we're buying so much sugarless gum, in part, because it's a lot cheaper than going to a dentist, and cash-strapped Americans are trying to stretch out the time between visits.

The problem is that some of the products' health claims are more credible than others, although you'd have to be a virtual gum detective to figure out which are which. For starters, several major sugarless gum types carry a statement from the American Dental Association saying that chewing gum after eating reduces cavities. In this case, the benefit comes not from an ingredient in the gum itself but the act of chewing, which stimulates saliva that washes away plaque before it can adhere to teeth and cause trouble. But this well-documented benefit is just the tip of the iceberg.

Some gum is pitched as a way for dieters to keep their mouth busy and resist the temptation of the candy dish or vending machine. Gum giant Wrigley's Extra brand is a corporate sponsor of the TV show "The Biggest Loser," for instance.

Other gum claim benefits ranging from tooth-whitening to enamel-strengthening to eliminating bad breath by killing germs in the mouth. One study even claimed chewing gum may have helped teens score higher on math tests.

The major gum manufacturers are taking aim at their competitors' claims, filing complaints with the Better Business Bureau. It's possible that some manufacturers will be forced to tone down their ads in the future if the agency decides they're (ahem) stretching the truth a bit.

The bottom line: If chewing gum helps you concentrate or keeps you from succumbing to the 3 p.m. munchies, great. But if a gum promises a claim that's exotic as the piece popped by the ill-fated Violet Beauregarde in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, take a pass.

You probably won't turn into a giant blueberry, but you could be spending your money on something that can't deliver on its promises.

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