Chewing Gum

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

This quintessentially American confection has ancient roots. Humans have chewed on gums, resins, and latexes secreted by various plants for thousands of years. The Greeks named the resin of a kind of pistachio tree with their word for “to grind the teeth together, to chew”: that was mastic, whose root also gives us “masticate.” Europeans and North Americans chewed the relatively harsh resin of spruce trees; and the Maya chewed chicle, the latex of the sapodilla tree (Achras sapote), ten centuries before it was commercialized in New York City. The idea of mixing gum with sugar goes back to the early Arab sugar traders, who used the exudation of certain kinds of acacia, a substance now known as gum arabic. It and gum tragacanth are slightly soluble and eventually dissolve when chewed; they were used in early medicine as carriers that would release drugs slowly. This is still one of the purposes of chewing gum, which are to release a pleasant flavor for some time while giving the jaw muscles something to do and stimulating a cleansing flow of saliva.