Day 564: Have Gum Will Travel

originally published July 17, 2013

There is something blissfully inelegant about chewing gum. As soon as you pop it in your mouth, you are in possession of a piece of eventual garbage that, if you don’t start out with an exit strategy, may finish its life crammed under a desk or depurifying the bottom of someone’s brand new pair of Nikes. Chewing gum is – for those of us who don’t opt for the sidewalk-disposal solution – a responsibility.

And in an act of deplorable inconsideration, many gum companies have upped the ante of commitment by replacing the easily-unwrapped and fashionable sticks with little candy-covered cubes inside loud plastic bubble-packs. These things obnoxiously announce to everyone within a three-room radius that you are about to partake in some quality chew-time, and they can all shut the hell up and resume their conversations once you have begun your mastication.

I hate those things. Give me an old foil-wrapped stick of Juicy Fruit or a paper pouch of Big League Chew any day.

Way up in the forests (or possibly plains, maybe mountains – I really didn’t pull too hard at this thread) of Yli-li, Finland, archeologists have unearthed evidence of gum from the Neolithic age. A chunk of 5000-year-old bark tar that was chewed and not swallowed, possibly because of its medicinal properties, or maybe because it was never too early in history to look cool.

The ancient Greeks enjoyed the resin from the mastic tree. Well, ‘enjoyed’ might not be the right word, though the stuff is still sold as a gum today. The initial taste is uncomfortably bitter, but after a few good chews the experience evolves to resemble that of chewing on pine needles. The resin was seen to have the ability to treat snake bites, prevent colds and improve the condition of the blood. I’m not entirely sure they weren’t using the “it tastes like crap so it must do something good for you” method of scientific study with this one.

Chicle, which is collected in goopy bags from various Mesoamerican trees, is a somewhat more logical step on gum’s weird road from medicinal hooey to recreational chomping. Chicle has a high sugar content, and was enjoyed widely throughout Aztec history, Mayan history, and the history of the Europeans who came along and appropriated everything the Aztecs and Mayans were into.

If you guessed that Chiclets, the tiny micro-gum that everyone loved despite the fact that you needed to keep popping pairs of them every two minutes to keep some semblance of flavor in your mouth, comes from chicle, you’d be right. Actually, all the Wrigley anchor brands started out with a little chicle in them.

The State Of Maine Pure Spruce Gum was the first commercially-sold brand of chewing gum, showing up on New England shelves in 1848. This stuff was made from the sap of spruce trees and probably tasted about as delicious as it sounds. Gum made from paraffin wax took over as the most popular variety, until chicle made its way up from Mexico in the 1860’s. Initially the stuff was meant to be a rubber substitute, but rubber prevailed and chicle had to settle for being America’s chew-toy.

The stuff you’re popping in your mouth today is synthetic. Most brands contain stuff like styrene-butadiene, a synthetic rubber found in car tires, shoe heels, gaskets and cutting boards. You’ll also find isobutylene, isoprene copolymer and petroleum wax. But of course none of those ingredients will make it to the commercials.

And speaking of commercials, while gum jingles from our youth may still resonate when we see the brands (they’re still hawking Juicy Fruit with that same damn song, despite the fact that the line “Grab a stick of Juicy Fruit” is outdated now that they use those damn bubble packs), they didn’t really tell the whole story. Yes, there was evidently a survey in which 80% of dentists polled suggested sugar-free gum for those who chew gum. And it’s true – gum made with xylitol (and this does include Trident) can reduce cavities and plaque. Just keep it away from your dogs; five out of five veterinarians agree that xylitol is downright toxic to dogs.

If you’re burdened with halitosis, chewing gum helps, not only by allowing the scent of Doublemint to waft out of your yap-hole instead of the onion-loaf you ate for lunch, but also because gum can dislodge food bits from your teeth. Well, the gum doesn’t do this, but it does kick your saliva glands into motion, and that’ll help.

But gum’s medicinal benefits only begin with your cavities and rancid breath. Chew gum for fifteen minutes four times a day after colon surgery and you’ll heal faster. Just had a C-section? Gum will get you back on the porcelain throne quicker, pooping like a pro. Got yourself some gastroesophageal reflux disease? No problem – the extra saliva you generate with a pack of Big Red will not only dislodge the crumbs of your morning McMuffin, but it’ll also neutralize the acid that has been giving you so much heartburn. Also, maybe lay off the fast food breakfasts.

That’s not to say that gum – just like any of us – doesn’t have its dark side. No, it won’t sit dormant in your stomach for seven years like your mom said, nor will the vinyl acetate used in some gum brands give you cancer. A 2012 Canadian study put an end to that worry. But there are tales of good gum gone bad – albeit under weird circumstances.

A 1998 report in Pediatrics told of a 4-year-old boy who had been given gum as a reward for good behavior. This must have been one swell kid, because he was chewing and swallowing 5 to 7 pieces every day, leading to a massive glob of solid grossness in his innards, and a painful constipation that had lasted half of his young life.

Another horror story tells of an 18-month-old girl who needed emergency hospital care after swallowing gum. Well, after swallowing gum and four coins, all as one big wad of ick. Don’t worry – she lived. And so will you if you swallow gum; it’ll fly out the back of you as quickly and efficiently as any other scrap of food, provided you don’t swallow loose change with it.

I suppose I may pass through another phase in which I always keep a pack of gum in my pocket. I don’t know – it’ll be old fashioned paper-wrapped sticks though, none of this sonic white-noise nonsense.

And nothing that has ever been attached to a catchy jingle. I don’t think I could handle any of those popping into my mind whenever I felt the urge for a chew.

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