Friday, May 29, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #108: Chewing Gum

Last week, I offered my friend Theodore Webb a stick of gum and he suggested that I write this blog post. So here it is. You’re all welcome to suggest ideas, btw. It’s not always easy to come up with these things.

As I’ve mentioned before, the oldest known piece of gum is 5,000 years old. It was discovered Kierikki, Yli-li, Finland, by archeology student Sarah Pickin, age 23. Professor Trevor Brown told the BBC that the lump of ancient gum bears “well-defined tooth imprints.” This Neolithic chewing gum was made from birch bark tar, which contains antiseptic compounds. The gum may have been used for medicinal properties or at the very least, may have offered unintentional health benefits to the ancient chewer.

Other ancient societies, including the ancient Aztecs and the ancient Greeks, also chewed gum. The ancient Greeks chewed the aromatic resin of the mastic tree. The ancient Aztecs chewed gum made from chicle, which is made from the sap of several Mesoamerican trees and became prized among European settlers for its high sugar content and flavor. The word chicle has found its way into modern Spanish and is reflected in the Portuguese, chiclete, and in the Chiclets brand of chewing gum.


In North America, native peoples made chewing gum from the sap of spruce trees. That sounds disgusting, but the stoic settlers of New England adopted the custom, which led to the development of the first (probably disgusting) commercial chewing gum, dubbed The State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum, which went on sale in 1848. Other early commercial gums were made with chicle or paraffin wax, which also sounds less than agreeable. When I was a little girl my Grandpa used to give me bits of honeycomb to chew, so I know what chewing on wax is like, but I guess it was the olden days when people had to wipe their asses with corn cobs and go around chewing on lumps of wax. That’s the kind of thing that drives progress, amirite?

Today, most chewing gums are made with synthetic polymers, including styrene-butadiene rubber, isobutylene, and isoprene copolymer, as well as petroleum and paraffin waxes. Sugar-free gum sweetened with xylitol can help prevent tooth decay when chewed after a meal, because it stimulates the production of saliva. Don’t let your cats eat it, however; xylitol is toxic to cats.

No gum for Fatty.

While chewing gum may be good for your teeth, it may be bad for your GI tract. Excessive gum chewing could cause you to swallow too much air, and experience pain and bloating, according to Dr. Patrick Takahashi of LA’s St. Vincent Medical Center, who has apparently never heard of burping. Artificial sweeteners can cause diarrhea or gas. Chewing gum could also contribute to ulcers, since it stimulates the creation of unnecessary digestive acids. None of these are an issue, however, unless you chew a lot of gum. On the plus side, gum chewing tends to both increase saliva production (as mentioned) and boost swallowing, which could neutralize stomach acid in the esophagus to combat the effects of gastroesophageal reflux disease.

The popular urban legend that swallowed gum will stay in your stomach for seven years is, as you might guess, simply not true. For the most part, gum passes through the digestive tract at the same rate as anything else you might swallow. However, if you swallow enough gum at once, you could run into problems. This often happens with young children, who may swallow multiple pieces of gum in one day, and who may also make matters worse by swallowing other things at the same time. When swallowed together with small objects, gum can form a bezoar, or indigestible mass, in the stomach that could cause a GI blockage. This happened to an 18-month-old girl who had to have a bezoar consisting of a blob of gum and four coins removed from her digestive tract. Other children have been known to swallow so much gum in such a short period of time that the gum itself coalesces into a massive “taffylike” ball that causes a blockage. Another child swallowed sunflower seeds, shells and all, along with his gum, which created a mass that surgeons described as “prickly…like a porcupine.” This is why you shouldn’t give gum to young children, or if you do, you should regale them with stories of how it will stay in their stomach for seven years if they are so imprudent as to swallow it.

Put it on the Gum Wall, as God intended.