Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Chewing Gum
Nature Bulletin No. 621-A   December 11, 1976
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Since ancient times, in many lands, people have found relaxation and comfort in the simple act of chewing some gummy substance. Somehow it relieves muscular and nervous tension. For example, at football, basketball and baseball games you will see some of the athletes and many spectators methodically chewing on wads of gum. On the other hand it relieves the tedium of doing nothing. For those reasons, and because it also relieves thirst, chewing gum was included in the combat rations of our armed forces.

Here in the Middle West, many years ago when we were boys, chewing gum was not sold in stores as it is now. We were always experimenting with things to chew on. One of our favorites was the aromatic, mucilaginous, inner bark of the slippery elm. Another was paraffin wax, used by our mothers to seal glasses of homemade jelly. For a penny we could buy a black stick of licorice and spit like a tobacco-chewing man. We chewed the gummy sap that exudes from wounds in the bark of peach and cherry trees. We chewed beeswax in honeycombs.

Some of the things we manfully masticated were unpleasant, if not sickening: the sticky sap that bleeds from broken stalks of milkweeds and rosinweeds such as prairie dock and compass plants; bits of tar used in paving streets: and goodness knows what else.

New England colonists learned from the Indians to chew the gum-like resin from spruce trees. In the early 1800's, lumps of spruce gum were sold by stores in eastern states but chewing gum made of paraffin wax, with a pleasant flavoring added, gradually took its place.

In the 1860's some chicle was brought to the United States as a possible substitute for rubber. Chicle is the coagulated milky fluid or latex from the Sapodilla tree that grows in jungles of Central and South America and is closely related to those from which rubber and gutta-percha are obtained. It was discovered to have a springy, chewy quality lacking in paraffin wax, held flavors better, and became the basic ingredient in chewing gum.

The sapodilla is most abundant in the rain forests on the Yucatan peninsula. It becomes very tall and large. To obtain the chicle, a native worker or chiclero climbs a tree and, with a long knife, cuts grooves in the bark so that latex flows slowly down into a container at the base. Collected and taken to a central camp, it is boiled in stainless steel kettles until it thickens. When cool it is molded into 20 or 25 pound blocks, called chicle, which are taken out of the jungle in canoes, on mules, or by airplane.

The Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company of Chicago, the largest manufacturer of chewing gum, blends chicle with the latexes from other tropical plants Jelutong, a tree in Borneo and Indonesia; leche caspi, a vine in the Amazon Valley; and, also in Brazil, the couma tree.

A stick of chewing gum has five main kinds of ingredients: the gum base from latexes, powdered sugar, corn syrup, softeners, and flavoring. The flavoring -- usually made according to a complex secret formula -- may contain oil extracted from one or more plants such as spearmint and peppermint, or from anise, or from a spice such as clove. It may contain some fruit extract, pepsin, or chlorophyll.

There are now 115 chewing gum companies located in 30 countries -- 41 of them in the United States. On the counters of several stores we found 30 brands. Most of them, with five sticks in a package.

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