Saturday, June 10, 2006

They Wrecked Gum

I'm not sure exactly when this happened, but it did. They wrecked gum. This is an issue in our lives because Madison loves gum. Ava's not quite as captivated by it yet but she has two years to catch up. Some of this may be genetic, because when I was growing up in the 1970s there were some prominent smokers in my family circle and packs of gum seemed to me like the kids' version of cigarettes. My Grandmother would bring back cartons of Marlboros from the military exchange and I'd keep close tabs on the stash of Bubble Yum in my room. Four or five packs on reserve and all was good in my world.

Madison seems to feel the same way, and gum is a treat we allow her on a semi-regular basis, within reason and depending on her most recent behavior. As a parent, it's a rare and emotional thing to see your child demonstrate a strong affinity for something, especially a material object like a favorite toy or some form of treat like ice cream or gum. Is it just the satisfaction of watching a young mind gravitate to something, express itself in such a dramatic, complete and convincing way? Yeah, that's nice. But the point I'm on at the moment can more accurately be described by the following two words: blackmail fodder.

There is nothing quite like the shock and awe of a parent threatening to take away an object or experience close to the heart of a child. This is not something we do often, I have to say, but on the rare occasions when I've had to resort to this nuclear tactic the results have been undeniable. Here's is some suggested messaging for the new parents in the group:

Said child does something objectionable.

"[Insert child's name]! I will find and throw away every single [Insert object of affinity] we have in this house if you don't [Insert reasonable request or suggested behavioral modification]! I mean it!"

Works every time. Affinity objects can also be used as a positive "if you do this, you'll get that" form of proactive persuasion. But we actually try not to do this too much because, honestly, we don't want to build up the idea that every moment of good behavior will be followed by a reward. I've occasionally told Madison that I would bring her a special treat home from work if she helped her mother out in some defined way during the course of the day, and she virtually always passes this test. Ava is basically immune to positive or negative blackmail-style influence because she's two years younger and, well, because she's Ava. More on Ava in my next post.

Back to gum. The only problem we're having with Madison's love of gum is that more and more of it is sweetened with Aspartame these days, and that's something I don't want her to have. I actually feel pretty strongly about this. The same concerns that prompt Stonyfield Farms to print "NO Aspartame, Ever!" on some of its yogurt containers are alive and well and kicking around in my mind.

Madison knows this, and she respects it. One of the first times she asked why she couldn't try a piece of some kind of sugar-free gum someone had offered her I told her it was because the gum had "chemicals" in it that I didn't think were good for children and didn't want her to have. She quickly dubbed sugar-free gum "chemical gum" and from that moment on whenever she would encounter a new variety of gum she would immediately ask whether or not it was "chemical gum."

"Look at that gum that lady has over there, Daddy, the little squares that push through the foil. That looks like very special gum. Is that chemical gum, Daddy?"

For those playing along at home, my experience has been that push-out foil packaging virtually always leads to a "chemical gum" diagnosis.

I know I am losing some people out there with this entry, and understand I'm pushing the bounds. You can find scary information on the Internet relating to almost any subject. You could Google "breathing hazards" and find someone, somewhere saying something like: "many researchers believe the process of breathing causes long-term and irreversible internal damage, eroding the lungs and trachea and eventually resulting in death."

But if you do a quick search for health risks associated with Aspartame, particularly Aspartame and kids, you come up with a whole host of entries that can charitably be called terrifying. Stuff about brain cancer and tumors, formaldehyde exposure and grand mal seizures. In my case it wasn't even something I read, I typically gravitate away from scientist-made when there's a more natural alternative available. To me, "chemical gum" is just not necessary, there's just no reason to make that choice. Same with "chemical soda" and, well, chemical anything.

When I was growing up the sugar free rack was more or less all Trident, all the time. You could go into any deli or candy shop and find enough types of sugared gum on the rack to have a different variety every day for at least a month, maybe two. That's not the case anymore, the tables have turned entirely. Earlier today I stood at a convenience store with Madison for a good five minutes picking up and reading packages before we found the ONE variety of "minty gum" (which is what she was looking for) that didn't have "chemicals" in it. I never thought I'd have occasion to say this in my life, but thank God for Chicklets.

I actually felt terrible during the process because every time Madison would find some new glittery package, some gum version of a candy name she recognized, her eyes would light up with anticipation while I scrutinized the label, found words like Aspartame and phenylalanine, grimly rendered the verdict - "chemicals" - and put it back. Skittles gum has Aspartame in it. At one point the girls were into this sort of tape gum, absolutely manufactured with kids in mind, colorful circular containers with a long strand of flat gum rolled up inside. We bought that a couple of times before I had a "what are the chances?" moment and picked up the container to read. Yup. There's that pesky Phenylalanine again.

But I have to say that the most insidious, the most unforgivable, the most downright outrageous use of Aspartame in gum has to have been perpetrated by the idiot at the William Wrigley Jr. company who first pitched the idea of adding Aspartame to the formula for the absolute gold standard of sugared gum - the one-two punch, the daily double - Wrigley's Juicy Fruit and Double Mint. Yes, the operative word here is "adding" - not replacing, which you could maybe see if they wanted to broaden the appeal of the products by producing sugar-free versions. No, not the good folks over at Wrigley. They found a way to keep the sugar and inject the potentially-harmful artificial sweetener at the same time! Genius! How could this happen? And with so little fanfare? New Coke has nothing on this. You can practically hear the internal brainstorm that resulted in this brain dead decision.

"People really love our gum, it sells very well."

"Yeah, that's true. The only problem is that, after a while, it runs out of flavor and our customers are basically left chewing tasteless rubber."

"Is there anything we can do about that?"

"Well, we could encourage them to just have another piece when this happens, or we could supplement the honest-to-goodness sugar with this insidious, possibly Cancer-causing, chemical. That will make the gum a little sweeter and extend the flavor a little longer."

"Yeah, that second thing, let's do that."

"I'll call production."

Sorry Maddie. I almost wish I'd saved you a few packs. It was good stuff before they wrecked it.

***

I'm not usually big on advocacy, but just for kicks here's the Web address for the "contact us" page on the Wrigley Web site. If you are reading this, and are so disposed, just cut and paste this address into your browser and use the form to tell them to get rid of the "chemicals" in their gum. Please accept my thanks in advance on behalf of Madison, Ava and children everywhere.

http://www.wrigley.com/wrigley/contact_us.asp

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