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Scientists develop biodegradable non-sticky chewing gum using cereal proteins

By Oliver Nieburg , 14-Nov-2011

Professor Elke Arendt made the discovery when researching gluten-free cereals
Professor Elke Arendt made the discovery when researching gluten-free cereals

Irish researchers have patented the process for a non-sticky, biodegradable gum that uses cereal proteins to replace rubber gum bases in chewing gum and are looking for companies to commercialise the product.

UCC has obtained the patent for the process of turning wheat protein into biodegradable chewing gum.

The research team at the University College Cork (UCC) made the discovery after studying visco-elastic properties in gluten-free cereal products in a project funded by the Irish Government’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry under the FIRM program.

Commercial opportunity

Professor Elke Arendt, who led the research team at Department of Food & Nutritional Sciences at UCC, told ConfectioneryNews.com about the prospects for gum manufacturers.

“You have a sustainable material that is not harmful. When you put it in your mouth and chew it, it is very similar to normal gum.”

The gum uses gluten to replace rubber that breaks into pieces that will disintegrate in the mouth in around 45 minutes. Prof Ardendt said it would not be harmful to swallow the gum.

“It’s just like eating bread really. The only downside is that you cannot chew it forever,” she said.

The researchers have tested the gum using peppermint and fruits such as strawberry and said it would maintain flavour.

The team also left the gum on the street to see how long it would take to biodegrade, but found that birds would eat it just like bread. Prof Arendt said that the gum had also been tested as safe for animal consumption.

She said further tests were needed to establish shelf life.

Cost

Although the process would be relatively simple once in place, production of the gum cannot be incorporated existing processes and required expensive equipment, according to Prof Arendt.

She said the small machine used at the UCC laboratory cost €0.5m, but said it would be difficult to extrapolate the price for industrial production.

However, she added that the cost of the raw materials would be fairly cheap. The cereal protein used is gluten, which is a storage protein wheat by-product in the starch industry.

According to Prof Arendt the raw material can be obtained for €8 per Kg. Her team had asked the industry how the price compared to rubber gum bases, but received no response.

Other alternatives

UCC’s protein-based gum is not the first non-sticky gum to be discovered.

In 2007, scientists at Bristol University in the UK developed the synthetic polymer Rev7 that can break down on pavements within months.

The gum base substitute has already been commercialised in the US with Welsh firm Revolymer and is awaiting approval as a Novel Food before commencing sales in Europe.

Asked what she made of other non-sticky gums on the market Prof Arendt said: “The majority are synthetic-based. To my knowledge there is no protein-based one.”

Prof Arendt said that she had already fielded a number of enquiries from gum manufacturers, ranging from leading multinationals to start-up companies.

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