For some people today it may be hard to imagine a world without chewing gum, but this substance, in the modern form that we know it, has existed for just over 100 years.
Yet today, some of us have even convinced ourselves that we cannot live without it and each year pay into this billion dollar industry that is definitely not in it for our health.
During this time span, what many of us are also not aware of, is how this once natural and “tasty treat” has today become a chemical gateway into our bodies.
In an earlier article, I wrote about the details of soda pop and what you should know hides inside that sometimes so addictive substance, where your health is concerned.
Today, we are going to go on a similar journey and explore the details of chewing gum, as this substance is marketed heavily and used by millions of people around the world. Unfortunately, most people who regularly chew gum are not aware what their gum is made of and the health implications associated with it.
If you are a gum chewer, my intention is that this article sheds some light for you on what exactly you are putting into your body, so that you can make a better informed decision of whether you actually should be putting this product in your body.
If you are not a gum chewer, this article will definitely make you thankful you are not. Let us then begin our journey of getting to know chewing gum.
The History of Chewing Gum
Over a thousand years ago, the Mayans and other American Indians chewed chicle-based gums. Chicle is a natural gum that comes from an evergreen tree and the first commercial gums were based on this substance. Hence, you can understand where the name “Chiclets” came from.
In the late 1800′s, after a failed attempt to make rubber, the Adams company was marketing the nation’s first commercial chicle-based chewing gums. Today, the Adams Company and the William Wrigley, Jr. Company are the nation’s largest manufacturers of chewing gums.
The first gums up to this point, were made out of natural plant ingredients, sweetened and flavored naturally.
In the early 1900′s, Wrigley mailed 3 sticks of gum to everyone listed in the telephone directories. Wrigley also mailed 2 sticks of gum to 750, 000 2 year olds on their birthdays. How is that for great marketing to get people hooked?
Chewing gum and bubble gum are not exactly the same, as bubble gum contains less gum base. Bubble gum was first invented in 1920′s by Philadelphia accountant Walter Diemer, who was working for the Fleer Gum Company.
During the 2nd world war, 1940′s, Wrigley took its gum off the market due to lack of raw materials, as happened with soda pop. But at this time also, popularity of gum spread to Europe, Asia, Africa and the rest of the world and the gum quickly made a come back onto the market.
The 1950′s saw the first sugarless gum produced, typically sweetened with cyclamate and by the 1970′s was banned since it was found to be carcinogenic.
The 1970′s saw the introduction of “squirt” gum, which is Chewing Gum with liquid centers that “explode” into the mouth upon the first chew.
Throughout the rest of the late 1900′s, gum has continued to evolve into various shapes and in various flavors and colors, with its main goal being for the taste to last as long as possible.
Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols have taken the place of natural sugar as people became calorie-counting conscious and sugar got direct links to dental disease, such as cavities.
Today, approximately 374 billion pieces of gum are sold every year worldwide, representing a whopping 187 billion hours of gum chewing.
Chewing Gum Statistics
- Total annual gum sales in the U.S. range around $3 billion per year
- Average American chews about 300 gum pieces per year
- About 50% of Americans chew gum
Most Common Reasons for Chewing Gum
- Freshens breath
- Relaxes and helps to ease tension
- Moistens mouth
- Helps retain alertness and wakefulness
- Helps resist urge to smoke
- Reduces ear discomfort while flying
Analysis of Chewing Gum
Again, as with the soft drink, chewing gum started out as a relatively fun and harmless substance and over the years has evolved into a chemical mixture, that gum chewers regularly introduce into their system.
So what is the average gum made of today? – 5 things really.
Gum Base – is the non-nutritive, insoluble part left in the mouth while chewing.
Sugar Substitutes- these used to be composed of real sugars, like glucose syrup andpowdered sugar, but as of the 90′s it is virtually impossible to find gum that contains natural sugars and not artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, sorbitol and many more.
Softeners - these are usually composed of various waxes.
Flavorings – they may be trying to mimic fruits and herbs, but in reality are nothing more than artificial, chemical flavors.
Colors – yes, even if the gum is white, virtually every gum has artificial colors added to it.
So all in all, gum is one big chemical mixture and nothing more, with most of these chemicals being a health hazard! Yes, people think that it has benefits such as those associated with oral health, but I hope you will see that the cons heavily outweigh the pros where gum is concerned.
Let us now then, look in detail at the example I am going to be using of Excel gum. Excel is not extraordinary in any way; I simply used this product as it represents the average gum an adult today would chew.
Ingredients: Maltitol, Gum Base, Sorbitol, Glycerin, Gum Arabic, Natural and Artificial flavors, Mannitol, Color, Aspartame, Acesulfame-Potassium, and Carnauba Wax.
*Maltitol: is a sugar alcohol, which can cause digestive disruptions, such as diarrhea, gas and bloating, especially if consumed in large amounts.
Most sugar alcohols are indigestible by our bodies and hence stay in our intestines creating all sorts of problems there.
In its origin, it is still like sugar, a carbohydrate as it is made from the hydrogenation of maltose, a well known disaccharide (double sugar made of 2 glucose molecules). Hence it still has the potential of raising blood glucose and has a high glycemic index.
Gum Base: is the non-nutritive, non-digestible, water-insoluble substance used to carry sweeteners, flavors and any other desired substances in chewing gum and bubble gum.
Gum bases for regular chewing gum are a little different than those for bubble gum. A bubble gum base is formulated with the ability to blow bubbles; it contains for example, higher levels of elastomers. Gum bases for non-acid flavored gum use calcium carbonate as a filler, while gum bases for acid flavored gum use talc as a filler.
Bubble gum usually contains 15-20% gum base, while chewing gum contains 20-25% gum base and sugar-free chewing gum contains 25-30% gum base.
It is not possible to know what exactly the gum base is made of as it is protected by trade secrets. However, it generally consists of the following ingredients in various compositions:
Elastomers: provide the elasticity or bounce, and can be natural latexesor synthetic rubbers (eg. styrene-butadiene rubber, butyl rubber, polyisobutylene)
Resins: provide a cohesive body or strength, and are most often glycerol esters of gum rosin, terpene resins, and/or polyvinyl acetate.
Waxes: act as softening agents and are most usually paraffin or microcrystalline wax.
Fats: behave as plasticizers and mainly come from hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Emulsifiers: help to hydrate, the most common being lecithin or glycerol monostearate.
Fillers: impart texture and the most commonly used are calcium carbonate or talc.
Antioxidants: protect from oxidation and extend shelf-life; the most common type is BHT
*Sorbitol: is also a sugar alcohol, and like Maltitol does cause similar digestive distress due to the affects associated with its digestion. Amounts as little as 20g/day can cause severe diarrhea, weight loss and irritable bowel syndrome symptoms.
It is made from chemically altering glucose and thus it is slowly or incompletely digested in the human body, but still poses a risk for diabetics.
Glycerin: is a syrupy liquid that is chemically produced by combining water and fat. It can come from animal, vegetable or chemical sources – something serious vegans should consider before chewing their next piece of gum.
It is used as a solvent and a plasticiser. It is most often used in the soap or candle making process where it is a key ingredient, as well as personal care products such as many lotions.
It is also commonly associated with glycerol, another sugar alcohol. Glycerin in drug form is used to relieve constipation and thus can also have laxative effects in combined doses.
Gum Arabic: is a natural gum also called gum acacia or chaar gund. It is the hardened sap taken from two species of the acacia tree.
It is composed of sugars and glycoproteins and considered safe to eat.
Natural and Artificial flavors: These can pretty much be anything and everything and as with other foods, one really has no idea what this means. And do not even get excited by the prospects of natural flavors. The U.S. Code of Regulations describes the natural flavor as:
“the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or any other edible portions of a plant, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose primary function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
Good luck with that one.
*Mannitol: like Maltitol and Sorbitol is also a sugar alcohol. It has a tendency to change chemically in water to become acidic in nature. Like the other substances, in oral doses larger than 20g, Mannitol acts as an osmotic laxative.
Medically it is used as an osmotic diuretic agent and a weak renal vasodilator, but it also has many more functions.
Color: As it is not law in North America, unlike Europe, to label colors specifically, we have no idea what this color is made of or what it comes from. Many artificial colors to date have been linked to various health effects such as cancers, ADHD, allergies and more.
*Aspartame: is an artificial sweetener that is prtotein (amino acid) in nature not carbohydrate like the other sugar substitutes. It is unstable under heat conditions.
One would have to be literally living under a rock for the past 25 years not to have heard of all the health problems associated with this substance. There are sites after sites dedicated to the problems associated with this, what many people today, call poison.
Upon ingestion, aspartame breaks down into several residual chemicals, including aspartic acid, phenylalanine, methanol, and further breakdown products including formaldehyde, formic acid, and a diketopiperazine.
Aspartame has been linked with countless symptoms and conditions ranging from headaches, intestinal cramping to liver failure, seizures and MS-like symptoms. In its earliest studies, rodents given aspartame developed brain and other tumors. Although the FDA has not yet banned it, many companies themselves have switched from this substance and changed over to using sucralose in all of their sugar-free products.
Other companies who continue to use this substance argue that it would have to be ingested in much higher amounts than it is found in, in their food, to subject people to ill effects. However, what most people do not realize is that many of them are ingesting it in higher amounts through the mixtures of products they use that are sweetened with it including diet soda, yogurts, etc daily. Hence many people get it in the average day, from many more sources than just the gum.
*Acesulfame-Potassium: like Aspartame, is an artificial sweetener and in composition it is the potassium salt of 6-methyl-1,2,3- oxathiazine-4(3H)-one 2,2-dioxide.
It is normally used in combination with other artificial sweeteners, as these blends are reputed to give a more sugar-like taste whereby each sweetener masks the other’s aftertaste.
Currently there are disputed studies in terms of the safety of this substance and some scientists worry it may be carcinogenic as not enough tests have been done on it. Others claim it is perfectly safe, as Acesulfame potassium is not metabolized or stored in the body. After it is consumed, it is quickly absorbed by the body and then rapidly excreted unchanged.
Carnauba Wax: is a wax derived from the leaves of the carnauba palm and it contains mainly esters of fatty acids (80-85%), fatty alcohols(10-16%), acids (3-6%) and hydrocarbons (1-3%).
It is typically used in car waxes, shoe and other polishes and cosmetics. In gum it is used as a surface polisher and it is what gives many gum pellets, their shiny appearance.
It is generally considered as a safe food additive.
*I used the asterisk for a few of the above items because if you look at the front of your gum package you will notice that the gum companies have to advertise this on the front of their package and hence say in rather large letters “WITH….” where they list all those additives. Now if there was nothing to worry about, why make such a big deal and point this out? Yes, naturally I understand that there are people who cannot tolerate the amino acid phenylalanine which is in Aspertame, but there is more than that to this story. My hunch is that it must be put on as a general warning to all people, given the known effects associated with the sugar alcohols and the artificial sweeteners.
Calories: 3.3 per pellet of gum
I think the most important fact about gum that people need to realize is the myth that we are not affected by what gum is made of, as the gum stays in our mouth and does not get swallowed (generally speaking) to be digested. The truth is however, that we do digest almost all of the ingredients that gum is made of except for the actual gum base that stays in our mouth.
This exposes us to the many chemical additives that make up gum and leaves us vulnerable to various health conditions. Where the chemicals are concerned, remember that for many of us, this is not our only source of these substances and the compounding effects turn chronic for many. The problem of course is that many of us are slow to correlate the actions of today to future health conditions.
Most people in the population chew gum to “freshen their breath” and the truth about that is that naturally people who are healthy and brush their teeth regularly should not have foul odors or tastes in their mouth. If such a condition is present, that should be your warning signal that something else is out of balance – usually tied to poor diet and stress.
Hence again, for optimal health we should be looking deeper into our bodies and getting to the root of the issue, not masking it temporarily with another substance.
From a financial standpoint too, think of how much money you can save by cutting the habit of buying packs of gum on a regular basis. Personally, I just cannot pay for something that is not conducive to my health – it just does not make sense to me.
Will the average stick hurt you if you are seeking average health? Probably not. But again if you are seeking optimal health and are also thinking long term, then just based on common sense alone, chewing gum does not belong in that equation.
Although I cannot make the decision for you, I hope that this article has given you enough information to make your own decision where chewing gum is concerned.
Sources & Resources
History of Gum- MintIndustry.org
Malitol – Just Say No – About.com
Aspartame Controversy- Wikipedia
Aspartame & Aspartame Poisoning- DORway.com
Aspartame Side Effects- SweetPoison.com
Everything About Acesulfame Potassium – International Food Information Council
Chewing Gum- Wikipedia