Recent research into the history of chewing gum indicates that the custom may not be as exclusively American as we have always thought it to be, although the U.S. does lead the world in total gum consumption.
For example, the ancient Greeks were known to be fond of a gummy substance named mastiche, derived from the resin of the mastic tree. In fact, Dioscorides, a Greek physician and medical botanist of the First Century, refers to the "curative powers" of the mastic in his writing.
Chewing was not a custom confined solely to ancient Greece, for today many Greeks and Middle Easterners enjoy chewing mastic resin, combined with beeswax, a softening agent. It may quite literally be said that mastiche is the "chew" of the Greeks, since the root "mastichan," in Greek means "to chew."
The Mayans were not too far behind the Greeks in developing the custom of chewing gum. Research shows that in about the Second Century, this large tribe of Central American Indians practiced the art of chewing what was later to be known as "chicle"- the coagulated sap of the Sapodilla tree.
Then, in about the year 800, the Mayan civilization met its end for reasons still largely unknown, virtually the only Mayan practice retained intact was that of chewing gum. The temples, the roads, the calendar, the great cities - all these were abandoned. But chewing gum remained. Its use continued among the descendants of the Mayans at least as late as the Nineteenth Century.
Meanwhile, the American Indians of New England were also chewing gum - but made from the resin of spruce trees. From the beginning in America, the custom of chewing gum grew, until during the early Nineteenth Century, the first gum products, lumps of spruce gum, were sold commercially.
Spruce gum continued to be sold, being replaced gradually by paraffin wax gum. Paraffin gum unfortunately required the heat and moisture of the mouth to render it suitable for chewing, and was therefore replaced as a base of all "regular" gums by other substances. Sweetened and flavored paraffin wax is still used in the production of novelty chewing products. Refined paraffin waxes are also used as ingredients of chewing gum bases.
Modern day gum products actually appeared in 1869, when the famous 'Mexican general, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, was searching for a substitute for rubber. He thought that perhaps chicle would fit the purpose. Santa Anna contacted American inventor Thomas Adams, who experimented with chicle but found it unsuitable as a rubber base.
One day, however, Adams noticed a girl chewing paraffin-based gum and remembered that General Santa Anna had, in the course of their meeting, chewed the very substance which he was trying to turn into rubber. The inventor, realizing that chicle was superior to all other gum bases then available, produced some chicle-based gum and persuaded a local druggist to carry it. This rediscovery of what the Mayans had known over one thousand years earlier revolutionized the manufacture of chewing gum.
Other trees also contribute or have contributed their latex to the chewing gum industry. Some of the latex used are leche, caspi and sorva, found in the Amazon Valley; nispero and tunu, from Central America; and jelutong, found in Indonesia, Malaya, and British Borneo.
Refined pine tree resins from our own Southeast coastal states also appear often as ingredients. Man-made resins and waxes have lately been used to greater degrees as the search continues for an even more enjoyable chew. Chicle, one of the early chewing products, is still produced commercially from the red and white Sapodilla trees which grow in the rain forests of Central and South America. These trees, concentrated most heavily in the Yucatan Peninsula, frequently reach heights of 100 feet or more, and develop with great hardness and density.The Sapodillas (Achras Sapota) are not tapped for their latex until they are at least 20 to 25 years old. Each tapping, made with a series of cross cuts, leading to a center channel - in the form of a herringbone - yields only 21/2 pounds of gum over a period of six hours. Trees are tapped only once in three or four years.
Although chicle and other natural gums are still utilized by the chewing gum industry, some, because of ever-increasing demand, are being extended by man-made materials. These have proven beneficial in providing the high consistency of chewing quality that the industry prides itself for.
Corn syrup, sugar, and flavoring agents are later added to the gum base in the gum-making process. These agents are of the highest quality, produced under spotless, rigidly controlled laboratory conditions.
How are the base, sugar, flavoring and synthetic materials combined to make the various kinds of chewing gums one buys at candy stores and other retail outlets? Most chewing gums are manufactured in the same manner up to a certain point. The gum base is melted in large, steam-jacketed kettles which heat it to about 240 degrees F. At this point it achieves the consistency of thick maple syrup. This "syrup" is then filtered through fine mesh screens, clarified in a centrifuge, and further filtered through very fine vacuum strainers. Throughout the process, the melted gum base is kept hot. The "mixers" now come into play. These are huge vats capable of holding up to 2,000 pounds each, and are equipped with slowly revolving blades. The first additions take place in these mixers. Powdered sugar, whose particle size has a definite effect on the brittleness or flexibility of the final product, is added. So is corn syrup, or glucose, which keeps the gum moist and pleasant to chew, and helps the sugar to combine easily with the gum base. Also softeners, which further retain moisture in the gum to insure a flexible, resilient chew; finally, either natural or artificial flavoring, whichever is desired, and to whatever taste, is added to the gum base in the huge mixing vats, as the giant blades slowly turn.
The blended gum then passes out of the mixers onto cooling belts and is bathed in currents of cool air to reduce its temperature. After this it moves to the extruders, machines which manipulate it to make it much smoother and finer in texture. From the extruders, the gum passes to a series of giant rollers which make up the "sheet-rolling machine." There, the gum is flattened into thinner and thinner sheets, the final thickness determined by the type of gum it is to be. Stick gum comes from the thinnest sheets; candy-coated gum, dating back to 1890, from a thicker sheet; and bubble or ball gum, from the thickest sheet of all. The stick gum passes into the cutting and scoring machines, where it is cut into smaller sheets, each scored in a single-stick pattern. The gum destined for candy coating is scored into little square or oblong pellets, and broken up by machine. For ball gum, the gum is scored or extruded into a pencil shape, and then run through specialized forming machines to form a ball shape.
The machines shaping and wrapping bubble gum, first sold in 1906, may be set for any one of a variety of shapes: stick, candy-coated, ball, pencil, kiss, or square. When scored stick gum emerges from the rollers, it has also been sprinkled with pure powered sugar. The gum is then put aside to "set'' in an air-conditioned room for at least 48 hours. The candy-coated gum is, after a 24-to-48 hour storage period, sometimes undercoated to help the coating adhere more firmly, then coated with candy in this case, pure, liquid sugar. The gum is then placed into pans where it is whirled with beeswax or another wax product. This process provides candy-coated chewing gum with its characteristic sheen. Chewing gum comes in an enormous variety of packages. Among them are the multiple-stick packs, the box-type of pack for candy-coated pellet gum, individually wrapped pieces of bubble gum, and the glass vending machines in which ball gum is revealed, unwrapped. The important thing about packaging is that it takes place under immaculate conditions as does the rest of the manufacturing process, so that the product reaches the consumer with all of its quality and purity fully protected.
For many years the custom of chewing gum has not only continued, but expanded among the populations of the world. This is probably because the chewing of gum is fun. It tastes good and continuously releases its pleasant flavor sensation over a long period of time with the total ingestion of only approximately 5 to 10 calories per portion.
The chewing gum industry guards the purity and integrity of its products and annually invests a substantial share of its income in the thorough investigation of every ingredient and aspect of manufacture, as well as in research and development. These manufacturers want their customers to continue enjoying one of the finest food products in the world.