Gum makers are increasingly using imported mint to flavor their gums, but new research showing consumers care about quality could help Washington mint growers lure back business.
Daniel Toro-Gonzalez, a Fulbright International Student Scholar at Washington State University, designed an experiment to uncover how mint gum chewers make buying choices. He found nearly 50 percent of choices couldn't be explained through packaging, gum shape, sugar content or other physical properties, leading him to conclude gum lovers' preferences frequently hinge on flavor quality.
"We wondered if consumers really cared, and what we observed is consumers care a lot," Toro-Gonzalez says. "We don't know what it will take to stop mint importation, but this is an important clue."
The Pacific Northwest produces 83 percent of the nation's mint crop, representing almost 50 percent of the worldwide total. Nearly all of the mint is used for toothpaste or gum.
"This is the best place to produce mint," Toro-Gonzalez says, pointing to the region's weather and sunlight patterns. "It's high quality mint."
China and India have lately emerged as major players in the mint market, leaving U.S. mint growers struggling to compete. But if the imported product is cheaper, Toro-Gonzalez maintains the domestic product is better. Manufacturers aren't required to identify the origin of the mint oil in their gums, so Toro-Gonzalez doesn't know for certain whether the highest-rated gums have more Pacific Northwest-grown mint oil in their flavoring mix, but says the quality of imported and domestic oils is so divergent that he feels confident categorizing his finding as good news for U.S. growers.
If gum makers want to satisfy buyers' cravings for quality, he says, they'll be forced to abandon imported mint oil.
"It's a definite advantage the growers here have," he says.
Toro-Gonzalez is now conducting similar research on beer which could give a scientific edge to Washington hops farmers.
"Also very fun," he says of his current study topic.