[HOT ITEM]Xylitol's Omnipresence Gives Consumers Lots to Chew Over

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[HOT ITEM]Xylitol's Omnipresence Gives Consumers Lots to Chew Over

"We, the Finns, make it a habit to chew xylitol gum every night before going to bed. How about Koreans?" That TV-ad challenge from a Finnish mother, given as she double-checks that her tots got their nightly dose, has been key to the booming sales of xylitol gum.

Xylitol, a sugar substitute extracted from plants, such as corn, has become synonymous with good dental hygiene. At markets, almost the entire gum section is dominated by brands with "xylitol" in their names. And the craze goes past gum: Candy and drinks with the sweetener are now being marketed.

Despite the 20-odd xylitol-based gum products out there, produced by three local companies, keeping track of them is not too hard. They have names like "Xylitol," "Xylitol Plus" and "Xylitol Bubble" - nothing like some other gums with odd names like "Cafecoffee," "A-cha" and "White E."

Three confectionery companies, Lotte, Haitai and Tong-yang, which sells goods under the Orion brand, are in the gum scrum. The success of the xylitol gums - with average monthly sales of 11 billion won ($9 million) for Lotte, 6 billion won for Haitai and 1 billion won for Tong-yang - is making the competition fiercer. One thorny legal issue is that many of the products share similar names, packages and colors. The gums also have similar flavors: for example, apple mint for Lotte and Tong-yang and lemon mint for Haitai.

Tong-yang likes to point out that it created a technology to extract xylitol in 1996, though it was slow to translate that skill to commercial success. It has run ads emphasizing Lotte's lack of original technology.

Lotte, which first marketed xylitol gum in 1997, responded by suing Tong-yang, and won a court decision in June that bans Tong-yang from using the color green on its xylitol gum packages, though it was allowed to keep using the word xylitol in its brand names.

A public relations manager at Tong-yang, Ryu Dong-soo, told the JoongAng Ilbo Edition, "We acknowledge that Lotte played a role in building the market for xylitol, but it doesn't mean that we can't use xylitol in our product names."

To set apart its brand, Haitai added "Plus" to the name of its main xylitol gum, sharpened the font and colored the package indigo. A Haitai official, So Seong-soo, said, "We've made a clear difference between our products and Lotte's."

To catch up in the race, Tong-yang is diversifying. It recently released "Xylitol Kids," with an orange mint flavor, and "Xylitol Cool Mint" in candy form. Haitai took the Korean angle by adding hongsam, or ginseng steamed red, flavor to one of its gums. "'Xylitol Hongsam' is packaged in red to distinguish it from the rest," Mr. So said.

If the product names are the same, what about taste? According to an office worker, Kim Hye-young, 23, there are differences.

In a blind taste-test of the three companies' main xylitol gums, Ms. Kim said Lotte's is the toughest, making it almost uncomfortable to chew, but the tastiest. "Lotte's is like raw rubber," she said. Haitai's is the softest but the flavor fades too fast, she said, while Tong-yang's was deemed average in texture and flavor. After nearly an hour of gum chewing, Ms. Kim knitted her brows and said, "Why am I doing this? I'm not even sure I could tell Lotte's gums from Haitai's and Tong-yang's at the supermarket."

by Chun Su-jin

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