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Caffeine gum could give Wrigley a jolt

Wrigley plans to start selling “Alert” gum next month -- that is, gum with caffeine. Gum sales overall are down, and “energy” products are booming. But cities, states, and the FDA are investigating caffeine marketing to kids.

From the ‘hopped-up marketing department’ this news today: Wrigley, the gum kings, will be coming out with a new caffeinated ‘chewable pellet’ next month. Basically -- chewing gum with 40 milligrams of caffeine inside. Energy drinks, not to mention all the permutations of ‘latte,’ are all the rage. But will caffeine that consumers can masticate take off?

“If yesterday was a typical day, sixty percent of American adults in this country started off their day with caffeine,” says food marketing analyst Harry Balzer of the NPD Group. “That’s more popular than just about anything else we consume in the morning.”

And Balzer says people are trying to pump more caffeine into their bodies all day -- on the road, on the job.

“This country has looked for the easiest way to get caffeine into the body,” says Balzer. “And I would say the trends about caffeine have been about how to get it into your body outside the home. So I don’t think the market is saturated.”

Putting it into gum is kind of a no-brainer. But no major gum company has tried it yet. Wrigley has made a related product—with more caffeine -- for the military, to battle fatigue.

“Is it a surprise that we might find caffeine -- or anything -- in our gum?,” asks Balzer. “I think I can find cookies and cream in my gum these days -- because we like to try new things.”

Which is totally what Wrigley is banking on.

“The gum category has been in decline for a number of years,” says company spokeswoman Jennifer Jackson-Luth. “So Wrigley is really focused on restoring relevance, and getting people to think about functional, or what we call 'occasion-based' reasons, to chew gum.”

Translation: this is like half-a-cuppa coffee, without the wet. Pop one whenever your energy’s flagging.

However, the food police are railing against energy drinks: the potential health dangers of over-consuming caffeine and other ingredients, and whether companies are marketing these products to children and teenagers.

Wrigley’s new Alert Energy Caffeine Gum addresses these potential concerns. It will taste bitter, come in a hexagonal-shaped pellet twice the size of a normal piece of gum, and be packaged distinctly from gums that emphasize breath-freshening or flavor, such as Juicy Fruit. Its suggested price point is also higher -- $2.99 per pack.

Will it fly? Some self-confessed caffeine addicts considered the question as they were hanging out drinking at a coffee shop on the campus of Portland State University in Oregon.

“I think I would try that, I think it would be helpful,” said Ashley Hartz, sipping her chai latte. “I’m in law school, and so every little bit helps.”

But Carson Whitehead, who was nursing a vanilla latte, wasn’t so sure he’d try it. “I don’t think so - that seems too medicinal, almost just like getting a fix, like Nicorette gum, without the enjoyment of a cup of coffee.”

Harry Balzer at the NPD Group says most of us already consider caffeine to be like medicine. And we’ll take our ‘fix’ any way we can get it -- wet or dry.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.
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