I received this free gift from one of our suppliers. Being a knower of many unusual facts, it’s kind of rare for me to come across a factoid in day-to-day life that I hadn’t already read about on the internet. This got me thinking, did they chew tree bark? Did they boil the leaves to make them chewy? The fruit?
If you also thought these same questions, you’d also be wrong.
Where did gum come from?
People have been chewing gum for thousands of years. Ancient Greeks chewed mastiche made from the resin of the mastic tree. Mastiche seems to be derived from “mastichan” which is Greek for “chew.” It also then makes sense that mastichan is the root work for our English word “masticate” which, surprise surprise, also means chew.
Native Americans in New England chewed resin from Spruce trees.
Mayans an Aztecs harvested resin from the sapodilla tree, which is actually called chicle, — a thick sap-y white substance, that makes it look like the tree is bleeding PVA glue. Can anyone guess where Chiclets got their name?
Man, I haven’t had Chiclets in years. I can still imagine how little time it takes for it to go from chewy & flavourful to hard little bits of barely pliable plastic in your mouth. I remember going trick-or-treating, taking all the Chiclets out of the haul at the end of the night, and chewing them all at the same time. After trading away all those nasty rockets of course.
The man who is credited for bringing chewing gum to America was named Thomas Adams Sr. He came across a supply of Mexican chicle, and after failed attempts of vulcanizing the chicle to make it all chewy, he discovered that boiling and hand-rolling them would do the trick.
Anyway, in the late 1800’s, just at the turn of the century, demand for chewing gum skyrocketed, popularized by a Mr. Wrigley. Does that name sound familiar? However, chicle from the sapodilla trees in Mexico have to rest for anywhere between 4 and 8 years between tappings. And they have to be at least 70 years old before you can tap them for that sweet sweet chicle. That’s not a very sustainable resource. By 1930, over a quarter of Mexico’s sapodilla trees were obliterated. Luckily, American manufacturers discovered a new way to make chewing gum.
What is our chewing gum made out of now?
While some gums are still made of natural rubbers from the sap of various different kinds of trees , many are made of “synthetic rubbers” made in labs with latex to replicate the chewy properties of chicle. Often, it is a combination of both natural and synthetic rubbers in the gum in a ratio that will maximize your chewing pleasure.
Because these rubbers do not have a great absorption rate, sweeteners — both natural and artificial — are added. The sweeteners combine with the rubber, and when flavours are added, the sugar is the one that absorbs it into the mixture.
Here’s a video of how modern chewing gum making process:
A cool short video about the history of chewing gum.
I guess the biggest surprise I came across was the sapodilla tree. I had never even heard of this tree before, and it’s actually a fruit-bearing tree. I didn’t even know there was a fruit called the sapodilla (Manilkara zapota).
It almost looks like a persimmon. This fruit has been added to my gastronomic bucket list.
Reading up on chewing gum made it seem a little icky that we were basically just chewing little pieces of rubber, even if looking back, that makes total sense. I guess rubber to me always referred to inedible materials — tires, elastic bands, etc. — that I never even stopped to consider gum as a rubber.
Just remember, don’t swallow your gum!
(It doesn’t actually take 7 years to digest. It just lingers in your stomach a bit longer and will end up in the toilet after. Your stomach will absorb the sugars and sweeteners. It will try to digest the rubbers and resin, but can’t, so it will mosey its way along to the end of the tunnel.)