The typical Western macho is always portrayed, masticating with a chewing gum and this product cannot be considered a modern one since it is very ancient in its conception and use. Chewing gum is a combination of water insoluble phase, the gum base and a water soluble phase of sweeteners, flavorings and colors presented in a solid format with chewable characteristics. Since the gum base is highly sticky it is difficult to swallow even after chewing for hours together. The product serves as a carrier for flavors which are trapped inside the gum matrix to be released slowly on chewing.
The gum base on which the product was built, the chicle, is a latex tapped from trees like Manakara chicle, Mimusops globosa, Chicozapote, etc and has more than 5000 years of history behind it. It was extensively used during ancient Maya civilization, though for what precise purpose, is still a matter of conjecture. World owes it to William Wrigley Jr who is considered as the pioneer in starting the Chewing gum industry in 1860s due to an accident of history. Chicle was imported to North America as a substitute to rubber since latter could not be grown under the prevailing conditions but it did not click as an acceptable material, looking for other uses. The industry grew at a slower pace though Wrigley tried to promote it even in India as an alternative to chewing of betel leaves, arecanut and tobacco. Of course chewing gum did contribute in the anti nicotine campaign through products that provided alternative satisfaction to smokers. No wonder Wrigleys went on to become the leading manufacturers of chewing gums world over with the fourth generation descendants carrying on the business and the family name has become synonymous with chewing gum.
Chicle, produced by tapping the latex of the trees mentioned above and heated to reduce the water content to about 33% provided a highly elastic foundation material for further compounding and molding to desired shape and size. During World Wars I and II chewing gum was a part of army rations to invigorate the tired personnel. However the natural chicle met with sudden demise during 1940s on the advent of styrene butadiene rubbers, made synthetically which was much cheaper and more easily available to the industry. Still some markets like that in Japan prefer natural chicle and limited quantities are still being made now.
Nutritionally chewing gum is almost 80% sugar, rest being gum base and other ingredients. Replacement of sugars with synthetic sweeteners seems to have expanded the market as it does not cause dental caries besides being low in calories. The fact still remains that chewing gum concept provides a carrier for administering medicine and micro nutrients like vitamins and minerals. To this extent the product has a utility value. But being high in sugar it is also addictive, especially with children. The disposal of the chewed gum residue is a tricky issue and to prevent them becoming a social nuisance as a pollutant, some countries have banned chewing gum sales making them cognizable offense. Use of synthetic rubber which is the most favored gum base by the industry, the question of safety is also an aspect that causes anxiety to the consumers. Though the material is not swallowed and there are specifications laid down for food grade butadiene rubber, the presence of polyethylene and poly vinyl chloride and some artifacts in the final product which may be leached out while chewing, is a compelling reason for the revival of natural chicle once again. Such a come back of natural chicle is on the cards and Mexico is renewing its efforts to find export market for its chicle, To distinguish natural chicle based chewing gum confections from their synthetic counterparts, new variants are being promoted as organic products. Natural chicle is a biodegradable material and cannot be expected to pose any environmental hazard. Sapota fruit plantations which are lately declining in India may see a turn around if that happens.
It may be necessary to develop newer versions of chewing gum that can be swallowed at the end without choking and it can be a source of dietery fiber required by human body. This will avoid the residue problem posing any serious threat as a civic nuisance. What effect continuous chewing of the product on the salivary system also needs some consideration for evolving guidelines for any restriction on its consumption if necessary.