We connected with the producers of Alpengummi, Sandra and Claudia, to chat about their new sustainable chewing gum venture.  It was a great conversation concerning the sustainability of ingredients and traditional industries.   Check out their thoughts on the viability of healthful ingredients in chewing gum in this thought-provoking interview.

What made you start Alpengummi?

We met during our first year of our environmental sciences master’s program in Copenhagen. In the second year at BOKU in Vienna, we had a course together about innovations in the forestry sector. We were encouraged to write a plan for a fictional business idea. We started to investigate what kind of innovation could possibly be done in a forest – and we came across the tree resin. We found out that resin is chewable and that people were already chewing it thousands of years ago. In the Austrian countryside, people still know all about it – it’s called Kaupech.

We also came across the old process, Pecherei, which is a way of extracting resin from pine trees in lower Austria. This art has become part of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011. Once it was an important and booming industry. Eventually it was substituted for fossil fuels and cheaper imports. Pecherei once shaped the landscape, culture and economy of this region and formed the livelihood of thousands of families, has shrunk to only a handful of active resin extractors, Pecher, and one of the last independent resin extraction companies in Central Europe.

We started to wonder how conventional chewing gums are made. We realized the producers do not declare the ingredients of their “gum base”. When we looked for more information we realized big companies refuse to these types of questions.  As a result, we assumed these are most probably made of synthetic polymers, similar to those used for car tyres and rubber gloves, which only adds to the list of synthetic and harmful ingredients in chewing gum.

Sandra and Claudia in the lab (c) Ignacio Rodriguez
Sandra and Claudia in the lab (c) Ignacio Rodriguez

How did you come up with the name Alpengummi?

We grew up in the Alps. From the heart of the Alps to the foothills, where the pine forests can be found. It just came naturally to us that the first natural chewing gum of the Alps should be called Alps’ gum, Alpengummi. We did not have to think about it at all, the name was just there – even before we started to make it.

Why is your product important for today? What makes it sustainable? What’s the value proposition?

When we look at the chewing gum sector, we see that there are still only a handful of natural alternatives – most of these use Chicle for their gum base, the tree sap of the Mexican Sapotille tree that grows in the rainforests. This is great, but it’s not economically viable for Europe to import from Mexico if we have local trees that make a great gum base.

Our entire Alpengummi is made of natural ingredients like pine resin, bees wax, birch sugar and natural flavours.  We use birch sugar, which does not cause cavities. Sustainability is part of every aspect of our company – from our suppliers, transport and production to our product packaging which is created as naturally as possible in the food sector.  Our chewing gum is also bio-degradable and does not contribute to the global waste problem.

What are the environmental benefits of switching to Alpengummi?

By chewing Alpengummi, you support renewable resources like the tree resin.  Pine trees are harvested over decades. As both the pine resin and the birch sugar are obtained from trees, you support forests that form a valuable ecosystem for endangered species and play an important role in the carbon sequestration of the planet. We use bees wax from small beekeepers that let their bees fly on orchard meadows for our gum base.

What are the values of Alpengummi?

Besides being a sustainable business, we want to be fully transparent. This means we list all the ingredients we use and tell the stories of the people and places where we source the raw products. We want that people know what they are chewing.

We wanted to get back to our roots. We want to show sometimes the solution lies in the old and traditional. Resin was chewed in Austria by people in the countryside and it was in the very first chewing gum made in the USA.  In looking for solutions in older processes we are also supporting the dying arts of Pecherie and beekeeping.

Have there been any challenges you’ve had to overcome to get to where you are now?

The first challenge was to create a chewing gum. We knew that resin can be chewed, but it was a big challenge to create a gum base from the resin that was actually chewable and delicious.

The biggest challenge we face is the market is dominated by big companies. More than 94% of the worldwide chewing gum market is dominated by one multinational company.  We have been in contact with several people who are willing to help us establish our product in this market.  One of our biggest supports is AWS (Austria Wirtschaftsservice), who have helped with funding to get us started on our way.  We don’t feel like we are facing this challenge alone.

What are some of the milestones you’d like to achieve in the next year?

The biggest milestone is to get the prototype done and ready. We are still working on the design and packaging. In 2019, we want to start to sell our chewing gum. There are many steps to take before we get to sales, like a detailed distribution plan.

What impact would you like to see Alpengummi have?

We hope Pecherei will get more attention and support. Hopefully, the resin will be used for more products and more people will work in the industry.

We want people to know what they are chewing.  To that end, big companies will have to declare what they use for their gum base.  We hope it will become common to have natural chewing gum.

How can members of Impact Hub help?

As we are entering the world of funding and investors, it would also be great to get advice from people who have gone through this before.

 

Header Image Credit: Alpengummi