People have been chewing gum for thousands of years. Ancient Greeks were chewing, Europeans were chewing, North Americans were chewing, even Mayans were chewing (probably as they were predicting the end of the world). But in those days, gum was just a resin extracted from certain trees. Not so in today’s world. Behind the minty fresh breath, the sweet strawberry flavouring and the sense of cool one feels when they chew gum, lies a very rubbery secret.
Chewing gum first exploded onto the scene in 1869, when a New York inventor by the name of Thomas Adams stumbled upon chicle. Chicle is a latex type resin extracted from the sapodilla tree and had been used by Mayans as their gum of choice. Adams originally wanted to make chicle into a cheap substitute for rubber (yum), but after failing, he turned to gum. The craze took off faster than a Duracell bunny and before you know it, everybody was chewing. Adams’ original creation was composed of mainly chicle, sugar and licorice. By the early 1900s, we had brands like Wrigley’s, which gave us peppermint and spearmint flavours.
But while gum of the 1800s and the early 1900s was au naturale, the same cannot be said for gum today. While some varieties still use chicle as the gum base, most do not. Due to the enormous popularity of gum, manufacturers were forced to find a substitute to chicle (if they continued using chicle, the sapodilla tree would’ve been wiped off the face of the planet decades ago). The substitute they chose? Rubber. Yes, most gum today is actually made out of rubber. Rubber is elastic, it stretches and it doesn’t break down in your mouth. If it makes you feel gross, just imagine that you’re chewing on a rubber band. The rubber they use is called styrene butadiene, which is commonly found in car tyres. In conjunction with sugar, corn syrup, flavourings and a substance called polyvinyl acetate (commonly found in paint) you have modern gum!
It’s a bit gross but only the sugar, corn syrup and flavourings get digested by the saliva in your mouth. And even if you do end up swallowing the gum, the rubbery goodness probably doesn’t get digested in your stomach tract either. Actually, contrary to the popular belief, gum that is swallowed will just get shat out, rather than stay in your gut for 7 years. Although there are a few cases of very young children who swallowed so much gum that a large mass of gum formed in their rectums which had to be removed manually…gross.
Aside from the rubbery nature of gum and the fact that it has the potential to form large rectal masses, there are some reported health benefits for chewing gum. Chewing gum stimulates saliva production, which is good for your breath and oral hygiene. Some people even claim that it’s good for weight loss, stating that the extra calories you burn from chewing sugar-free gum contributes, in the long term, to shedding of the kilos. But if you asked me, I probably wouldn’t rely on that. I mean even if it does work, chewing sugar-free gum has been linked to excess farting. And nobody wants an overly flatulent friend. There are some slightly more significant problems with gum. Some people experience bad side effects which include diarrhea, mouth ulcers, high blood pressure and high blood mercury levels. But I don’t think it happens very often and if it does, you’ve probably been chewing too much gum. If you do find that you have these problems, try switching gums. Some additives and flavourings cause certain conditions. Alternatively, you should probably see a doctor.
And that’s the story of gum. If you want to know more, somebody decided it necessary to write an entire book about gum (look up Chicle by by Jennifer P Mathews). For those of you not interested, just keep chewing. But do remember that every time you pop a stick of your favourite Wrigley’s, Extra or 5 gum, your minty fresh breath and good oral hygiene is due to paint and car tyres.