FROM EARLY TIMES people have found enjoyment in chewing gum. The ancient Greeks chewed the resin of the mastic tree. The Aztecs chewed tzictli, or chicle, from the sapodilla tree. And the Native Americans of New England taught colonists to chew the resin of the spruce tree. In fact, in the early 1800’s, lumps of spruce resin came to be the first commercial chewing gum marketed in the United States. Later, chewing sweetened paraffin wax became popular.
It is said that modern chewing gum had its beginning in the latter half of the 19th century. During Mexican ex-president Santa Anna’s exile in the United States, he was noticed chewing pieces of chicle that he had brought with him from Mexico. An American inventor realized its potential if sweetened and flavored, and he imported chicle to the United States to make chewing gum.
Chicle is the milky latex of the sapodilla, an evergreen called the chewing gum tree. It is native to the Gran Petén, the tropical rain forest of northern Guatemala, Belize, and the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. There, in some areas, over seventy-five sapodilla trees can be found in a single acre [175 trees per hectare]. During the rainy season, gatherers of chicle, known as chicleros, make zigzag cuts in the trunk of the wild sapodilla, allowing the latex to run slowly into a receptacle at the base. It is then collected, boiled to the desired consistency, and molded into blocks to be sold. While chicle is still used to some extent in the chewing gum industry—particularly in gum advertised as natural—it was largely replaced by synthetic products in the 1940’s in the United States.
Why is chewing gum so popular? Many chew gum to freshen their breath and clean their teeth when brushing is not possible after meals and snacks.* Others find that chewing gum is relaxing and an aid to concentration. In fact, because chewing gum has been recognized to reduce tension and contribute to alertness, the U.S. armed forces supplied chewing gum to the troops in the first and second world wars and still include it in field and combat rations. Some drivers find chewing gum more effective than drinking coffee to keep them awake. People who are trying to quit smoking may find that chewing gum helps. It is also popular for satisfying the desire for a snack—at an average of less than ten calories a stick.
However, many people find the practice objectionable. And there may be times when it is not considered good manners to chew gum. So if you have this ancient yet modern custom of chewing gum, you will want to use discretion.
Chewing gum increases salivation, which helps to neutralize acid in plaque on teeth, contributing to oral health. Dentists recommend that as further protection against tooth decay, sugar-free gum be used for this purpose.
Caution: Gum should not be swallowed, as it can cause intestinal tract and esophageal obstruction. Also, excessive gum chewing causes higher levels of mercury to be released from dental amalgam.