Pop culture

In public, on screen, and even at the Academy Awards, gum chewers seem to be everywhere

By Beth Teitell
Globe Correspondent / March 18, 2010

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Is America having a gum-chewing moment?

The answer, to the dismay of etiquette watchdogs, seems to be yes.

Chew on this: Sales of sugar-free gum are soaring, outpacing those of mints, not long ago the “It’’ product in the gum, mints, and breath-freshener category.

Once the scourge of teachers and janitors, gum — the sugar-free variety, at least — is now being positioned as a virtual miracle food, with makers claiming that sugar-free gum can do it all: reduce stress and calorie consumption, whiten teeth, boost concentration and alertness.

As a headline on Wrigley’s website reads: “This is your brain on gum.’’

Today’s gum is more than something to chew. It’s a benefit-delivery system that can help smokers quit, blast a dose of caffeine to the tired, and provide antioxidants to the anti-aging obsessed.

The manufacturers like to tout studies claiming various benefits, but what some consider gum’s finest hour had less to do with science than with Hollywood. At the Academy Awards last week, millions watched as Sarah Jessica Parker, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Morgan Freeman paraded before the cameras while chomping on gum.

Parker gushed to a TV reporter about her Fred Leighton jewels and her Chanel Couture gown, all the while chewing as if she were in the schoolyard. Inside the Kodak Theatre, gum’s starring role continued. Look, there’s Cameron Diaz chewing while applauding for honorary awards recipients Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman, and “Avatar’’ star Sam Worthington enjoying gum on the Oscar stage itself, while presenting an award.

If the trend keeps up, next year’s interviewers may not ask “Who are you wearing?’’ but “What are you chewing?’’

The tut-tutting was immediate and snarky. Among the appalled was Thomas Connolly, an English professor at Suffolk University, and a keen pop culture observer. “No wonder they’re all going into rehab,’’ he said of celebrities. “They have no self-control.’’

Etiquette consultant Jodi R.R. Smith, of Marblehead-based Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, was equally aggrieved. “Even with one’s mouth closed, the movement is incredibly unseemly.’’

But as they say, any publicity is good publicity. Chewing gum got another cameo just this past Sunday, in HBO’s highly promoted new miniseries “The Pacific,’’ when a close-up shows a nervous Marine popping a stick as his boat heads to Guadalcanal.

Industry observers say that societal factors are working in gum’s favor. As smoking has become less acceptable, gum chewing has become more so. Bernard Pacyniak, editor in chief of Candy Industry magazine, attributes gum’s growing acceptance to today’s more “laid back’’ society.

Susan Whiteside, vice president of communications at the National Confectioners Association, sees gum meeting a growing need for so-called “portable hygiene.’’ “As Americans branch out and try spicier foods, the need for having fresh breath becomes even more important,’’ she said.

A report released Monday by Mintel International Group, a market research firm, showed that US sales of sugar-free gum in food stores, drugstores, and mass merchandisers (excluding Wal-Mart) hit $1.2 billion in 2009 — nearly six times that of sugared gum. Looking back over a five-year period, Mintel reports that sugarless gum sales have grown by more than $450 million, an increase of 61.8 percent since 2004, making it by far the top player in the gum, mints, and breath fresheners category.

Industry experts attribute a large part of gum’s gains to the introduction of new products, including those that blend flavors (such as Trident Layers, which uses wild strawberry and tangy citrus); and trendier packaging. Wrigley’s “5’’ gum, for example, is so sleek it’s talked about almost like a fashion item.

Recalling the impression “5’’ made when it debuted, Whiteside, of the National Confectioners Association, recalled a scene at the NCA’s trade show in which many female reporters said, “You could put this in your clutch.’’

In other words, you’ve come a long way, Bubblicious.

As Jennifer Mathews, the author of “Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, From the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley,’’ pointed out, during Aztec times chewing gum was the marker of a prostitute. In the old movies, she added, leading men and women never chewed gum. “It was used to show someone was a bad guy,’’ she said.

It was Wrigley, Mathews added, who helped spread the gum habit around the world during World War I, when he convinced the US military that gum should be included in soldiers’ rations. Wrigley argued that gum would help the troops by staving off nervousness, and squelching thirst and hunger. It was a good thing, he said, to have in a foxhole.

It’s also, apparently, a good thing to have at a bar these days. Hanging out at the Publick House in Brookline on a recent weekend, Andrew Hedin, 24, a consultant, said he sees nothing wrong with smacking his gum. He likes to chew, he said, especially if he’s “trying to make out with someone.’’

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