Sugar-free gum sales are on the rise, despite the economy, making at least one candy category "recession-proof."

It’s been widely reported that candy is recession-resistant, and although this notion is up for debate, at least one category seems to be holding its own, despite a down economy: sugarless gum.

Whereas regular (sugared) gum brands saw a decrease of 10.6% in sales for the latest 52 weeks ending May 17, 2009, compared to one year ago, sugarless gum brands accounted for $1.14 billion in sales during the same period - that’s a 9.6% increase over the same period one year ago, says Chicago market research firm Information Resources, Inc.

The success of the sugar-free gum category stems from escalating consumer interest in better-for-you products with functional health benefits, even in candy. An increasing number of introductions offer teeth-whitening and -strengthening, and plaque- and cavity-fighting attributes, all in an often minty, sometimes fruity package.

Take Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co.’sOrbit brand, which carries the American Dental Association (ADA) Seal of Approval.Orbit products have been proven to help fight cavities, strengthen teeth and reduce harmful plaque acids, ultimately helping chewers to maintain good oral healthy, the company claims. New varieties include Positively Pomegranate and Strawberry Mint.

Then there’s the newOrbit Mistline of “hydrating” gum with micro-bursts, available in Peppermint Spray, Watermelon Spring and Mango Surf varieties, which also play on the popularity of fruit-flavored gums that freshen breath, too.

That taste trend continues in Wrigley’sExtra Fruit Sensationsline of “long-lasting fruit flavors” such as new Berry Smoothie and Mango Smoothie.

And Wrigley’s upscale5brand capitalizes on the sugar-free fruit gum direction with its new Solstice (a warm and cool winter flavor) and Zing (a sour to sweet bubble experience) varieties.

Additionally, The Hershey Co. embraces functional demands with itsIce Breakers Ice Cubes WhiteChewing Gum. Unlike stick and shell gums, the new product features a “cool cube shape” that’s frosted through a proprietary process for an extra-cold alternative. It comes in Wintergreen Splash and Mango Kiwi Cooler flavors.

New sugar-free varieties of Cadbury North America’sTrident brand answer the call for a cavity-fighting chew that “cleans and protects teeth,” as well, through the use of xylitol. New varieties are Strawberry Twist and Wintergreen; a classicTrident flavor, Cinnamon, also makes its return this summer at the request of consumers. Two other fruity new gum products from Cadbury areTrident WhiteCool Mango Berry andTrident SplashOrange Swirl.

“Fruit flavors are the fastest growing segment in the gum category,” says Lesya Lysyj, executive vice president of marketing for Cadbury. “What’s more, the whitening segment continues to outpace category trends.”

Another trend driving the category is convenience. For example, Cadbury now offers its sugar-freeDentyne brand gum in a bottle that holds 60 pieces; consumers can choose from three “mint” varieties: Peppermint, Arctic Chill and Spearmint.

Last, but not least, likeTrident with its “new” Cinnamon selection, Cadbury’s sugar-freeStride brand addresses renewed interest in classic flavors with its recently introduced Uber Bubble - the ninth variety fromStride since its launch in 2006.

Another company making strides in the gum category is Verve, Inc., whoseGlee Gumline takes into account not just health benefits but allergens.Glee Gumis free from almost everything, including artificial preservatives, flavors, colors and sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin and cyclamate. It’s also all-natural, made from sustainably harvested rainforest chicle. Consumers can choose from six flavors as well as newWee Glee- mini pieces of the gum in every assortment, including an exclusive banana variety, packaged in a single box.

Another company goingau naturalis Bonus Gum, which plans to debut a brand-new line of xylitol-based gum that will offer a natural, premium chewing experience, says president Jay Klein.

“Our mission with this new line is to have as few ingredients as possible that are as simple as possible for everyone to understand,” he notes.

Growing consumer awareness is driving the trend toward clean labels and aspartame-free products, Klein says, but further education at the retail level as well as sampling programs are necessary to promote further understanding.

Another factor motivating the consumer to continue to purchase from this successful category is value. In most cases, gum remains an affordable luxury, and as such, it often sails under the radar, Klein notes.

That said, consumers do look at cost, even when it comes to gum. Consequently, in today’s economy, manufacturers and retailers have an incentive to run specials to keep it a truly recession-proof purchase.

Marvelous Marketing

“Spider-Man 4” may not hit theaters until 2011, but in the meantime, the superhero lives on through Marvel comics … and now,Spider-Man Gum. New from Bonus Gum, the super-soft bubble gum comes in 40 limited-edition comic wrappers. Each 4-oz. package features 20 individually wrapped pieces.

“We developed the product due to the increasing interest in the superhero world,” says Bonus Gum president Jay Klein. “It’s fun for kids, fun for adults.

“Spider-Man has been the No. 1 boys’ brand worldwide for more than 40 years, globally,” he adds.

Ripe for the Picking

Those who like to blow bubbles are no doubt familiar with Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co.’sHubba Bubbabrand, which for years has been bringing flavorful fun to kids of all ages. It now comes in a new flavor, Sweet & Sassy Cherry, which launched this spring.