LOS ANGELES — Amid shifts in the gum industry, a bit of Americana might be going away — the colorful gum balls once sold for a penny from machines at drugstores, arcades and supermarkets.

The main problem with gum balls is that although they’re available in many flavors and colors, almost all of them have one thing in common — a heavy dose of sugar. At a time when child obesity has become a prime concern, this product has come in for a drubbing.

“More gum ball operators are finding it harder to make a living,” said Spencer Williams, president of Gumball.com, an Irvine, Calif., gum, candy and vending machine wholesaler.

The struggles in the gum-ball business mirror the challenges facing the entire chewing gum industry.

The amount of all gum sold in the U.S. was expected to be static in 2011 compared with the previous year, according to a September report from research group Euromonitor International. Overall revenue was expected to rise slightly.

Many gum-ball machines aren’t even used for gum balls anymore. Williams said about 45 percent of the gum-ball machines operated by his clients now dispense small toys. Only about 27 percent dole out gum balls, with the rest stocked with candy and other items.

Research figures on gum balls are hard to come by, but Richard Ackerberg — whose American Gumball Machine Co. in Marina del Rey, Calif., sells the machines to vendors — said he has seen the decline firsthand.

Although machine sales are still strong — mostly to entrepreneurs hoping to use them for part-time income — each unit is now pulling in only about half the money it did a decade ago, Ackerberg said.

“The industry has tried many different things — sugar-free gum balls, organic versions — but those have over and over again been unsuccessful,” Ackerberg said.

Add the rising price of sugar to those woes.

Chewing gum makers are also trying to boost sales. Kraft Foods — whose brands include Dentyne, Trident and Stride through its Cadbury subsidiary — said its North American gum and candy division suffered a double-digit revenue tumble midway through 2011.

Mars Inc., the top gum manufacturer in the U.S., owns Wrigley and its brands, which include Doublemint and Extra. As a privately held company, it doesn’t publicly disclose much about its business.

Vic Mehren, a senior marketing director for Wrigley, said that keeping gum desirable for consumers is an industrywide challenge.

“Gum is a discretionary purchase, an impulse purchase,” Mehren said. “We need to evolve along with how consumers’ lifestyles are evolving. We need to be bringing new reasons for people to be chewing gum.”

Just about the only growth area in the industry overall is in sugarless offerings, which Euromonitor said “continues to be the saving grace in gum.”


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