Gum covers every surface. Somewhere in a woman’s purse, behind a desk in a school, or in the aisles of a nearby grocery store may be it. It might also be in someone’s mouth, where their teeth are chewing on a stick whose flavor is quickly fading. Few people are aware of where gum came from, even though it is one of the most common candies in our society. To what end was gum popularized, and who was its inventor?
Some research suggests that ancient northern Europeans chewed tree bark to alleviate toothaches as early as 9,000 years ago. Additionally, there is evidence that the ancient Greeks relished chewing a variety of plant compounds, some of which had hallucinogenic qualities, and that the ancient Scandinavians chewed bark tar.
Chicle is a natural latex resin derived from sapodilla trees endemic to southern Mexico and Central America. However, according to Jennifer P. Mathews, author of Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, the more direct history of modern gum begins a bit later with the Mayans. As a defense strategy, trees create resin to entangle and eventually kill insects. The sticky resin also helps trees recover from wounds inflicted by insects.
Because it is odorless, mainly tasteless, non-toxic, and contains water droplets, this resin has been known to the Mayans since the dawn of civilization, some 3,500 years ago, making it ideal for chewing. In particular, it was an excellent, easily accessible means of warding off thirst and hunger during hunting.
Throughout millennia, the Mayan people figured out how to gather and cook chicle more efficiently. To facilitate the flow and collection of resin, they devised a method of cutting into the tree in a zigzag pattern, which is still employed today. Additionally, the Mayans discovered that drying and heating the resin was the best way to prepare and preserve it. Even the Aztecs, who lived from their peak about 1200 to 1521, enjoyed Chile hundreds of years after it was first popular. Just like in modern times, some social norms about gum chewing came into being. Women and children who were not yet married were the only ones allowed to chew chicle in public places.
Married women would often chew in private, often due to health concerns like poor breath or tooth rot. According to Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish missionary from the 16th century, if an Aztec male was seen chewing in public, he was considered “effeminate” or a “sodomite.” This practice was also practiced by men on occasion. By the way, the Aztecs used the practice of publicly chewing chicle to reveal a person’s marital and sexual status. One way to spot a prostitute, for instance, would be to look for the way she playfully smacked her lips on a chewed chicle.
European settlers appropriated the practice of chewing chicle, as they did with other innovations made in North America many years before. Chewing on resin from nearby trees became a common practice by the turn of the nineteenth century.
For instance, John Curtis, who was born and raised in Maine, has warm memories of his childhood spent in the kitchen with his father, making gum from spruce resin. Curtis thought the meal may have broader appeal, even though it was originally simply a family recipe. He made history in 1848 when he commercialized spruce gum. (Previous to this, it was known that some Native American tribes used spruce tree resin as a glue and chewing gum).
Curtis did more than just boil and clean the resin; he also sliced it into strips, dipped it in cornstarch to make them less sticky, and wrapped each strip in tissue paper. His gum, which he dubbed “State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum,” became so famous that he established the first chewing gum plant in Portland, Maine, just four years after its release. Two factors, meanwhile, mitigated Curtis’ influence on Gum’s past. First of all, the newspaper industry also loved spruce trees, so many were designated for this use, which meant that Curtis’ sources ran out very fast. Furthermore, the flavor of spruce gum was just not appealing. Although there wasn’t much competition for it, people were holding out for something better. Thomas Adams put Curtis out of business when he introduced chicle to the American public.
Origins of Gum Chewing
Ancient civilizations, such as the Greeks and Maya, embraced gum chewing for various purposes. The Greeks favored mastic gum derived from the mastic tree’s resin, primarily for dental hygiene and freshening breath. Similarly, the Maya chewed chicle, derived from tree sap, indulging in its use long before Columbus arrived in the Americas.
Historical evidence reveals intriguing utilitarian uses of gum-like substances among ancient peoples. Birch pitch, a gooey resin, was employed by ancestors for tool repairs. When solidified, it was chewed to regain pliability, akin to a primitive form of bubble gum. Additionally, ancient Greeks chewed mastic for its cleansing properties, while Scandinavians and Native North Americans chewed birch sap and spruce tree sap, respectively, for various reasons.
Benefits and Dental Implications
- Chewing gum, especially sugar-free variants, stimulates saliva production, a crucial factor in oral health. Increased saliva helps neutralize acids, aiding in the remineralization of tooth enamel and reducing the risk of tooth decay. The act of chewing encourages a higher flow of saliva, providing a natural defense against plaque acids and promoting a healthier oral environment.
- Saliva triggered by gum chewing contains essential elements that combat harmful acids. These elements work to reduce plaque acids and assist in maintaining a balanced pH level in the mouth. By diminishing acid levels, chewing gum contributes to preserving tooth structure and minimizing the potential for cavities and dental erosion.
- The increased saliva flow prompted by chewing gum aids in strengthening tooth enamel. Saliva acts as a protective barrier, buffering acids and providing minerals like calcium and phosphate necessary for enamel remineralization. This process reinforces tooth structure, making it more resilient against decay and acid-related damage.
- The combination of enhanced saliva flow, reduced plaque acids, and strengthened enamel significantly lowers the risk of tooth decay. Sugar-free gum, particularly those sweetened with xylitol, exhibits antimicrobial properties that further combat harmful bacteria in the mouth, contributing to a decreased likelihood of cavities and decay.
- Regular, sugar-free gum chewing, when incorporated into good oral hygiene practices, offers notable benefits for oral health. From increasing saliva flow to reducing plaque acids and fortifying tooth enamel, the cumulative effect supports a healthier mouth environment, potentially decreasing the prevalence of dental issues and promoting better oral hygiene.
Tracing the evolution of gum usage, from utilitarian purposes among ancestors to the contemporary dental implications, signifies an enduring quest for improved oral health. Through the ages, gum chewing has transitioned from varied cultural practices to a recognized contributor in dental care, showcasing its enduring relevance in fostering healthier smiles.