They're little green patches of film that melt instantly on your tongue, releasing bursts of minty breath freshener strong enough to wipe out all signs of that garlic shrimp you had for lunch. Sound familiar? They're Listerine PocketPaks, and they're made of a material that folks in the food industry call "edible film." Introduced by Pfizer Inc. (PFE) in 2001, PocketPaks sparked a craze. Now everything from sushi to Sudafed is showing up on store shelves all wrapped up in melt-in-your-mouth film.
Consumers are lining up for the chance to stick out their tongues. Retail sales of edible film, at about $100 million a year today, are expected to hit at least $350 million by 2008, says James Rossman, a former maker of edible film who is now a consultant in Tampa. In 1999 sales were just $1 million, mostly from niche products such as the edible underwear that's a favorite gag gift at bachelor parties. "Listerine broke the market wide open," says Rossman -- who, by the way, in 1974 had a hand in inventing some of the first edible undies.
Over-the-counter drugmakers are breathing new life into tired brands by pressing them into flavored strips. In 2004, Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis (NVS) introduced Triaminic and Theraflu Thin Strips. This April it followed up with Gas-X Thin Strips, a new twist on a nearly 30-year-old brand. The Triaminic franchise now claims a 20% share of the pediatric cough and cold market -- the first time since 1999 the brand has broken the 20% barrier. "Most of the growth has been driven by the Thin Strip," says Brian McNamara, a vice-president at Novartis Consumer Health in Parsippany, N.J. In the past year, retail sales of Theraflu and Triaminic strips were up 28% and 26% respectively, bringing in more than $19 million, according to Information Resources Inc.
Sales of Listerine PocketPaks, meanwhile, fell 20%. But even if the breath market turns sour, strips could prove appealing as a way of delivering drugs. Film strips dissolve quickly without requiring water. That's good news for elderly patients who have trouble swallowing and even better for kids who hate syrupy medicine. Plus, strips are discreet -- a selling point for drugs such as Gas-X. "If you have a meal that you know is a precursor to a gaseous event, you can take a film and be on your way," says Alexander Mark Schobel, CEO of MonoSol Rx, a Warren (N.J.) manufacturer of edible film. Some Big Pharma companies are eyeing the technology for more lucrative prescription drugs, he reports.
Patients with four legs and fur may be the next target for drugs-on-film. Albert Ahn, a veterinarian and spokesman for Hartz Mountain Corp. in Secaucus, N.J., says his company is looking at edible film as an alternative to stuffing pills down pets' throats. "Dogs and cats are pill con artists," he says. "They hide them under their tongue or in their jaw and then spit them out when you're not looking." Strips stick -- and some drugs can also be given at lower doses on films because they are absorbed better through the tongue. Ahn estimates that pet pharmaceuticals represent a $1 billion market.
The risk is that consumers might not buy into this film frenzy. It can be hard to mask a medicine's taste on film because the strips are so small. And the novelty effect may wear thin. Hartz recently pulled its mint breath strips for dogs off the market in the U.S. because they never caught on. (Ahn says, however, that they are a "resounding success" in Japan.)
Declining breath-film sales haven't deterred the food industry, which is finding all sorts of new uses for the technology. Some meat manufacturers are using films to cure and glaze ham. There are electrolyte strips that athletes can consume in lieu of sports drinks to fight dehydration. Film might someday be used as a moisture barrier, separating the tomato sauce from the crust on a frozen pizza, for example, so the crust stays crisp. "These films can improve the quality and shelf life of food," says Tara McHugh, research leader for an Albany (Calif.) unit of the Agriculture Dept.
And get this: Matthew de Bord, owner of Origami Foods in Pleasanton, Calif., has developed films made of carrot, and tomato with basil, which can be used in place of seaweed to wrap sushi. "Some people have an aversion to seaweed, or they just want an alternative," de Bord reasons. Costco Wholesale Co. (COST) is testing sushi wrapped in de Bord's films at some of its stores in California. Wonder how that might play in Tokyo.
By Arlene Weintraub