There are breath mints and there is plastic film. And now, there is an entirely new product category that meshes the formerly unrelated entities: Call it breath-freshening film.
That market, a cottage industry built over the past 22 months, includes players both large and small. Breath-product behemoths Pfizer Inc., which makes Listerine, and Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. now run in-house film-casting lines to make the melt-in-your-mouth products from exotic copolymers.
And small film extruder Aquafilm LLC of Tampa, Fla., now serves a lion's share of the private-label brands for that market, after pioneering new uses for edible film. The company set up its first flavored-film lines in Tampa almost three years ago. Now it is expanding and talking of new vistas for its products.
``We've really just scratched the surface,'' said Aquafilm President and Chief Technology Officer James Rossman. ``A few years from now, you'll see dozens and dozens of different products in this form. If you want to give medicine to child or a pet, you can put film on the tongue and it can't be taken out.''
Instead, the water-soluble film dissolves quickly: It starts disappearing in 15-30 seconds, and normally is gone is less than 1.5 minutes flat, Rossman said.
Both Aquafilm and larger corporations already are launching new lines of film besides the breath sweeteners. They include cough and cold medicines, candies, appetite suppressants, decorative flakes for cakes, energy enhancers and even vitamins.
At Aquafilm's Tampa development laboratory, the company has produced an orange-flavored film that includes 10 milligrams of Vitamin C in each strip.
What is this miracle film? Actually, water-soluable plastic films do not represent a major new technology, the way that, say, a biodegradable film might be new. The technology has been around for decades in food. Longtime uses include adding nutrients to bread by packaging the healthy minerals and vitamins in a thin cast film that dissolves during baking.
It also is used in water-treatment plants and industrial applications. Aquafilm extrudes the film at a plant in Hartlebury, England, that makes dissolving gel packs for dishwashing soap and soon-to-vanish laundry bags for hospitals and nursing homes.
While water-soluble ``laundry bags on a roll'' are poised for growth, food in film form already has become a popular consumer staple, Rossman said. The new wave of edible film was started by Listerine, a brand name of New York-based pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer. The company, working in development with Aquafilm, rolled out its PocketPaks oral-care strips in late 2001.
The micro-thin film strips, shaped like a C battery, dissolve on contact after getting wet while on the tongue or roof of the mouth. The firm launched an aggressive marketing drive, giving away product in supermarkets, shopping malls, and on airplanes.
Listerine began extruding its own film after the market took off.
``It did fabulously well and opened the door for the industry,'' Rossman said. ``They showed the public that edible films are attractive and taste good and have no negative connotations.''
Soon, Wrigley followed with its self-manufactured Eclipse Flash Strips, released in September 2002. Wrigley projected the potential global breath-strip market at $300 million. The strips were the first non-chewing-gum products released by Chicago-based Wrigley in its 111-year history.
It is still a market that has others believing in its potential for growth, especially as an easily ingested medicine.
``We're much more health-conscious than ever,'' said Peter Mooney, a research analyst with Plastics Custom Research Services Inc. of Advance, N.C. who mentioned edible film in a recent study. ``With its timed release, you don't just gulp and swallow it. It's like hard candy we took as kid, but it's new and different.''
At Aquafilm, the process is similar to making solution-cast film. The firm either uses hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, a film often used to control the release of water or drugs, or polyethylene oxide, a natural block copolymer that comes from pectin.
Pectin, a water-soluble carbohydrate, is used in a variety of food, includes jams and jellies. The material is derived from citrus peel, Rossman said.
Aquafilm mixes the material with flavors and sweeteners and douses it in a water solution. The thick, syrupy mixture is then put through a standard flat die or cast-film die or cut with a precision casting knife. The film is typically 1-2 millimeters thick.
Rossman and five partners formed the company, then Cast Film Technology Inc., in Chicago in 1998. The industry veteran had worked in water-soluble films for many years, serving as the chief executive of several companies.
In late 2000, the partners bought a British company called Aquafilm, changed the company name and moved to a 15,000-square-foot plant in Tampa. The Tampa plant began focusing exclusively on the food and pharmaceutical film market.
Within two weeks, the firm plans to expand, opening another 11,000-square-foot building next to the original plant. The new building will include an expanded research laboratory and offices, opening more manufacturing space for the two cast lines there.
The company also owns a smaller, leased plant in South Windsor, Conn., and would like eventually to move those operations to Tampa, Rossman said. Over the next six to nine months, Aquafilm plans to spend about $1.5 million to complete its Florida expansion, adding another 10-15 people, he said.
In England, the company makes water-soluble blown film using polyvinyl alcohol as the prime ingredient. Packets of dishwashing soap and agricultural chemicals are carried in the packaging film. A large use for that film is the laundry-bag industry.
The water-soluble bags are used to transport linens, gowns and textile rods at hospitals and other institutions. The linens are especially sensitive, used by patients with potentially communicable diseases from hepatitis to AIDS, Rossman said. While the film keeps bacteria in the linens from escaping, it dissolves when the material is tossed into a washing machine, he said.
The firm recently expanded that operation too, buying the laundry-bag assets of its next-largest competitor, MonoSol LLC of Gary, Ind., in August. MonoSol's laundry-bag customer lists and current projects were shifted to Aquafilm's Hartlebury facility.
That facility, with 50 employees, just completed an expansion that added 50 percent more space and cost about $1.5 million, Rossman said. ``It has continued to grow as more people are concerned about infection control,'' he said. The company now considers itself the largest provider worldwide of the laundry bags.
The young company has grown to $15 million in sales and about 85 employees in five years of business. And with edible film becoming a potentially more lucrative item, the need for water-soluble film can make another upward push, Rossman said.
On a larger scale, water-soluble plastics could be entering a new era as a film material, Mooney said.
``The whole concept of water-soluble plastics has been around for awhile,'' he said. ``But now, companies are applying an entirely new take on this by delivering something to the body.''