The Crunch: Modern label-conscious consumers are aware of the link between ingredients and health, but they’re also concerned about food sourcing and sustainability. Their purchases show a growing preference for natural foods, snacks, and household products made by brands that align with these values. Glee Gum, made by Verve, is a fun, all-natural treat made from responsibly harvested chicle and natural sweeteners rather than synthetic materials and dyes. And Verve’s commitment to sustainable practices, operations, and partnerships demonstrate care for both the planet and its people. The company’s growth reflects consumers’ continued journey to whole-life alignment with healthier, more natural products.
Modern consumers, with ready access to information about food production and studies that link artificial ingredients to health risks, have become more selective about the products they buy. In a 2016 International Food Information Council Survey, 47% said ingredient labels play an important role in informing their purchasing decisions.
Brands have responded to this clean label movement by increasing their selection of organic — a category projected to grow 14% through 2021 — alongside Fair Trade and non-GMO certified foods. Products that advertise all-natural ingredients, ethical production practices, and sustainable packaging are also hitting store shelves in higher numbers.
Compared to ideological trends of the past, the current move to live more naturally extends beyond food to other consumable categories — including health and beauty products, and even household cleaners. Deborah Schimberg, CEO of Verve, calls this the neo-natural movement.
“What we’re seeing is a national trend. At the beginning of the movement, people were focusing on the center of the plate. Now, it’s trickling outward to include packaged snacks and sweets — one of the largest growing areas. I think it’s a reflection of people trying to be more consistent throughout their lives,” she said.
And Verve is participating in this movement. An independent, multi-certified company founded in Rhode Island in 1995, Verve is best known for Glee Gum — a unique brand of sustainably sourced, all-natural chewing gum.
“Certifications have meaning for people because they demonstrate what they can’t see from an ingredient label,” Deborah said. “We had three kids when we started the business, and it was apparent then — and even more now — what additives and preservatives are doing to people’s health and the environment. The vision was philosophical, but it was also just born from observation and our commitment to our kids.”
Unlike most commercial brands of chewing gum, Glee Gum is free of dyes, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners. That gives conscientious consumers peace of mind that the treats they and their children consume are good for their health.
“Chewing gum is a very simple treat. It’s not necessary for the world — it’s fun, and it shouldn’t hurt people to indulge in it,” Deborah said.
Ethical sourcing and sustainability are also core to Verve’s mission. Glee Gum ingredients are derived from Fair Trade partnerships, and — from its packaging and operations to its affiliations — the company strives to protect the ecosystem, provide equal employment opportunities, and build community.
By prioritizing healthy ingredients and responsible practices, Glee Gum exemplifies the type of products and company culture that today’s informed, health-conscious consumers are looking for.
Inspiration Leads to a Commitment to Natural Ingredients & Sourcing
The concept of sustainable development was still new in 1992, and Deborah’s personal quest to learn more about its practices led to the inspiration for Glee Gum.
“I was involved in a nonprofit that provided urban environmental education and community gardens. Through a fellowship, I had the opportunity to travel and study sustainable development independently,” Deborah said. “I traveled to Guatemala, and that’s where I learned about chicle — the raw material that all chewing gum used to be made from.”
Chicle, derived from the sap of sapodilla trees that grow in Mexico and Guatemala, is harvested in a process that’s similar to how maple syrup is tapped in the US. The process doesn’t harm the trees, and chicle can be harvested from each tree multiple times. Harvesting chicle — especially within Fair Trade cooperatives — also provides a sustainable livelihood for indigenous people.
Deborah brought back one of these blocks of chicle from Guatemala, and she and her children started experimenting with using it as a base for making natural chewing gum. “The kids had a fun time doing that. We started selling the chewing gum kits first and then eventually moved into chewing gum,” she said.
“The Ben & Jerry’s Community Projects initiative developed an ice cream flavor that featured Brazil nuts, which were collected by cooperatives of indigenous people. By including these Brazil nuts, Ben & Jerry’s was providing an income for them — connecting community development and resource extraction with the industrialized market,” Deborah said. “Another inspiration was The Body Shop, which had a program called Trade Not Aid.”
Once imported to the US, the chicle used in Glee Gum is mixed with natural sweeteners and flavors. Classic Glee Gum is sweetened with Fair Trade cane sugar and brown rice syrup, while Sugar-Free Glee Gum is sweetened with xylitol, a natural substance found in fruit and vegetable fibers that also improves dental health. Both types of Glee Gum come in a variety of flavors and package sizes.
The Glee Gum brand promises that its products are made from natural, certified ingredients, but it’s not always easy to balance these ideals with best business practices.
“We sell our Fair Trade certified, cane sugar sweetened Glee Gum at the same price we sell our xylitol-sweetened Glee Gum, but one costs about 45 cents a pound, while the other costs almost $4 a pound. It’s an example of the kind of cost factors we have to consider.”
Verve continues to face these decisions as it adds new products such as Glee Gum Pops.
“We had every desire to create sugar-free Glee Gum Pops, but we couldn’t use xylitol because it crystallizes. We decided to at least get non-GMO glucose, but we have the pops made in Mexico, where it doesn’t exist. The only way to get non-GMO lollipops is to import the glucose for the corn syrup, and that’s expensive,” Deborah said. “You can make artisanal products, but when that product depends on volume, you’re more dependent on what supplies are available — and at what cost.”
Verve’s commitment to Fair Trade sourcing and using only natural ingredients, despite the business challenges, is building a loyal following of consumers who want to know where their products are coming from and how they’re impacting the larger community.
Sustainability Extends to Packaging, Operations & Partnerships
Verve also holds itself to high standards of environmental and community stewardship in every aspect of its business — beginning with the way it produces and packages Glee Gum.
Glee Gum pouches and pops are packed by Opportunity House, while its Make Your Own Candy Kits are assembled by Access Point RI. Both organizations provide employment opportunities to disabled individuals, helping them gain valuable work skills, confidence, and greater independence.
And instead of encasing Glee Gum in blister packs, which end up in landfills, Verve uses recyclable materials.
“Our 16-piece recyclable cardboard box is something we don’t want to change. We’ve tried to make the boxes as user-friendly as possible, and we explain to customers why we don’t use blister packs,” Deborah said.
Verve tries to keep its carbon footprint as light as possible throughout its operations. One of the most innovate ways it accomplishes this is by powering its headquarters — an abandoned gas station purchased and renovated in 2015 — with solar panels.
Verve is a member of Green America, a nonprofit that grants its Business Seal of Approval to companies that demonstrate support for their communities and the environment. It also supports Trees for the Future — an organization that has planted over 128 million trees to help impoverished farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa find hope in a new livelihood.
By striving to operate its business in a way that reflects its values, Verve offers consumers more than just a natural product — it gives them a brand with which they can confidently align themselves.
“When people find a product they like, then they start looking at the company. It’s amazing how many people really care about chewing gum and what brand they choose. We’re glad they’re looking into our company values and activities,” Deborah said.
Bringing Natural Products to the Market & Education to Consumers
In the natural movement, consumers are trying to make decisions that align with a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle. And this is reflected in their shopping habits.
“In the past, they might get one thing at a place like Whole Foods, then go to a drugstore to pick up any pack of gum,” Deborah said. “Now, people are being more consistent and asking more questions in all aspects of their lives. We’re seeing more questions about ingredients, more understanding of supply chain and origin, and more people caring about certifications.”
As retailers recognize this shift, they’re opening their shelves to natural products, and consumers are finding a greater variety of brands and products in more places.
“That’s definitely progress,” Deborah said. “There are thousands of new products coming into the market, and everyone wants to help educate consumers. There are a lot of products, companies, and young people saying this is one way they can make a difference and provide alternatives.”
Glee Gum has become one such alternative to mainstream brands, and Verve continues to develop new products to give its customers more options for healthy treats. Next to Glee Gum and Glee Gum lollipops, customers can expect to see new gums and other types of natural candies, such as xylitol-sweetened tarts.
“The vision for the future is to continue to grow, innovate, and capitalize on people’s growing interest in learning about what they eat, where it comes from, and what impact it has on their health and the environment,” Deborah said.