Functional gum is the obvious stand-out when it comes to nutrition-focused oral health solutions. Some of these products may be aimed at other health conditions like satiety, but the majority focus on battling dental diseases like periodontitis, caries and gingervitis. Or haliotosis – better known as bad breath. Globally it’s a multi-billion dollar market.
Ask almost any functional food or supplements business about regulation – at least in Europe– and they will tell you their effect has been unequivocally restrictive.
Especially in regard to the highly controversial European Union nutrition and health claims regulation (NHCR) which the industry has been slamming for years for curtailing what it sees as vital food marketing, not to mention R&D and NPD.
But one sector that has performed better than most is oral care which has won a number of claims that has seen gum makers, confectionery makers and others ramp up their product pipelines to benefit from claims that chewing reduced-sugar gums, or using particular types of sweeteners can keep the cavity of your mouth, and the bones it houses (teeth), in good or better shape.
A Mintel report on gum confectionary in the UK found 91% of consumers use gum to freshen their breath and 61% to keep their teeth healthy.
Vitamin D and calcium have also been backed to keep teeth strong by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Other claims have been OK'd in places like Japan, which remains the world's biggest functional gum market.
In Europe, EFSA said of vitamin D that a daily intake could help maintain, “normal bone and teeth, absorption and utilisation of calcium and phosphorus”.
In response to a Wrigley’s application , it also said sugar-free gum could help in the, “reduction of tooth demineralisation and a reduction in incidence of caries.”
A claim the gum giant would say is well due. After all, sugar-free gums have long been on the agenda of the world’s gum makers, and Wrigley’s as far back as 2001 formed a dental health alliance with Procter & Gamble.
Ingredient suppliers like Tate & Lyle, Cargill, Ajinomoto, Roquette, Beneo, Wild and others have been busy for decades refining polyols like xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, lactitol, erythritol and maltitol and high intensity sweeteners such as stevia, aspartame and sucralose.
Mintel warned consumer education was needed around some of these sweeteners, noting of erythritol that, “In the US for example, an overwhelming three-quarters of consumers do not know what erythritol is.”
Datamonitor figures show sugar-free gums dominate all gum launches. The market analyst’s Tom Vierhile said 56.3% of gum launches were “sugar free” in 2011, up from 47.8% in 2007. But oral health may not have been the primary driver as it turns out.
“The strongest trend appears to be sugar-free chewing gum, but this could be just as much of a weight management story as a dental health one,” Vierhile said.
“This is where most of the new product launch activity is in chewing gum. Products geared around the dental opportunity or even freshening the breath are more sluggish.”
And the stats show gum launches that specifically mention “teeth” or “dental” have dropped in recent years from 15.9% of debuts in 2007 to 8.1% last year. “Breath”-focused introductions accounted for just 3.4% in 2011.
“Next to the sound science”
But it’s not just about gums. In another opinion , EFSA’s health claims panel found sugar replacers can decrease tooth demineralisation if four foods-drinks are consumed daily to reduce plaque pH but not below 5.7.
Beneo Group vice president of regulatory affairs and nutrition communication, Anke Sentko, said the opinion was, “next to the sound science”.
"The positive opinion from EFSA is a real step forward in the recognition of the nutritional benefits of polyols,” said French supplier Roquette’s global SweetPearl project manager, Valérie Le Bihan.
“It also comforts Roquette in our strategy involving many efforts in clinical studies on polyols and dental health."
Vierhile noted functional chocolate and candy launches, although the numbers were much lower than for gums. Mints were another category with an inherent breath-improving target.
According to Datamonitor functional chocolate products targeting dental health have been launched by Lotte Shoji in Japan, Vitality Brands Worldwide in Australia, Youngevity Essential Life Sciences in the US, Nestlé in Venezuala and Stollwerck GmbH in Germany in recent years.