Despite a shrinking confectionary market, chewing gum has been enjoying healthy growth, posting record sales last year.

Though once viewed with repulsion by concerned parents as an ideal recipe for cavities, chewing gum has recently been winning the hearts of health-conscious consumers.

Reversing the public perception with new concoctions, makers have successfully redefined the role of gum as a promoter of dental health.

According to the Chewing Gum Association of Japan, chewing gum sales grew 8.5 percent to a record 187 billion yen in 2003.

Comparable figures for confectionery companies’ other main items, including chocolates and biscuits, are not yet available for last year, but they suffered declines the two preceding years.

“It’s definitely xylitol,” said Naoshi Yamada, marketing manager at Meiji Seika Kaisha Ltd., referring to a sweetener behind the recent lift in the industry.

The sugar substitute, naturally found in the human body, has been reported to reduce tooth decay. “The xylitol gums have come to account for more than half of the (domestic) chewing gum market,” Yamada said.

Meiji released a gum called Xylish in May 1997, following regulatory approval to use the substance in food.

In the same month, chewing gum giant Lotte Co. introduced its Xylitol lineup.

The dominant industry leader, with a better than 60 percent market share, Lotte’s Green Mint and other stick gums had long been synonymous with chewing gum in Japan.

However, the firm started to see a sales slowdown around the late 1970s.

“Those were the days when chewing gums were slammed as a cause of tooth decay,” said Tetsuya Seki, assistant manager at Lotte’s products planning department.

Concerned about dimmer prospects for its bread earner, the company began a search for chewing gums that can prevent cavities.

Its researchers encountered xylitol, whose dental health benefits were written about in academic papers in Finland in the 1970s.

It had to wait until 1997 for regulatory approval, and Lotte threw its full weight into marketing its Xylitol gums that year.

Among other targets, heavy promotional activities were aimed at dentists, whose endorsement was imperative if the company hoped to position the gums as a friend of dental health.

Seki said the result was “15,000 out of the country’s some 50,000 dentists agreed to sell our Xylitol gums at their receptionists’ counter.”

For other confectionary makers, locked in the lower depths under the dominance of Lotte, the growing popularity of so-called dental gums presented a rare opportunity to move up the ladder.

“Competition is very fierce,” said Meiji’s Yamada. “In the past, new releases were rare, but today, makers introduce new products every year.”

Meiji’s promotional efforts are no less aggressive than Lotte’s, but it has taken a different approach.

Unlike Lotte’s rather serious tone, Meiji employs more comical and down-to-earth images to market Xylish, using young celebrities for TV commercials.

“Rather than directly touting the dental health benefits, we have taken a more casual approach targeting young people,” he said.

The competition has been further intensified with the entry of Ezaki Glico Co., which debuted POsCAM chewing gum last May.

The gum features phosphoryl oligosaccharides of calcium, the potato starch-derived substance originally developed by Ezaki Glico.

Eager to bite into the hot market, the company took out rather feisty newspaper ads, in which it contended that its POsCAM gums are five times more effective than gum using Xylitol. Lotte turned around and filed a lawsuit, claiming false advertising.

But Glico is undeterred.

“In addition to the Kanto region, we will start selling POsCAM in the Chubu and Kinki regions this spring, and we hope to sell 10 billion yen under this brand alone, gaining a 10 percent market share,” said Tsuyoshi Kiriishi, Ezaki Glico spokesman.

Meanwhile, the chewing gum makers said the strong market expansion has also been helped by bottle-type packages that started appearing on store shelves around last year.

The makers originally intended the bottles for family use, as part of their efforts to market chewing gum as an after-meal ritual, like dental floss.

But office workers jumped at them, finding unwrapped gum convenient to grab and pop into their mouth in the office. Other people buy them to leave in their car.

Convenience stores are pleased. For them, the bottled gum, priced at around 800 yen, represent a pricey item.

“Sales of gum are moving 25 percent higher than a year ago,” said Tetsuhiro Kaneko, a spokesman of Seven-Eleven Japan Co. “I think they’ve met the needs of consumers.”

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