Chew the fa(c)ts Science

The sticky story of chewing gums

A piece of discarded chewing gum is used as a base for his work by artist Ben Wilson. In this week's 'An eye for an i', find out the colourful history of chewing gums...   | Photo Credit: FINBARR O'REILLY

Have you heard anyone mention the phrase 'chew the fat'? Used to refer to chats or gossip done in a friendly, leisurely way, the fat probably corresponds to the juicy part of the gossip, not unlike the chewing gum from which the phrase was probably derived.

We'll be doing just that today, chewing the facts about chewing gums. If the Christmas lighting we looked at last week was developed because dried wood possessed the danger of catching fire, chewing gums too can be traced back to trees.

Be it our Neolithic ancestors who chewed gum made from birch bark tar, or Ancient Greeks and American Indians who chewed gum-like substances made from resins or other residues, it was done for a variety of reasons — from serving as a breath-freshener to quenching thirst and staving off hunger. Aztecs and Mayans even figured out how to slice the bark strategically, in order to appropriately collect the resin and make a chewable substance out of it.

The modern gum

The modern chewing gum as we know it today is, however, a product of the nineteenth century. The first gum-related patent was awarded in the U.S. on December 28, 1869 to William Finley Semple for a gum that was chewed not only for fun, but also kept your breath fresh and teeth clean.

His process involved dissolving vegetable gums in alcohol and naphtha to a jelly-like consistency, which was then dried and hardened.

The harsh taste and unpleasant texture meant that Semple's gum didn't become popular. That was left to Thomas Adams, who used chicle, a natural gum that can be used to produce chewing gums. Adams got his chicle through a Mexican connection, from the exiled president General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.



Last week’s answer
National Outfit Manufacturer’s Association is the full form of NOMA, the consortium that popularised Christmas lights. S. Surya Narayanan of Class XI, Sundram Matriculation Hr Sec School, Aviyur was among the first to get it correct. Congratulations!
Adams initially attempted to vulcanise chicle to make it a useful industrial substance like rubber. He even made toys, rain boots and masks out of it, but none of his products worked.

That was when he decided to boil and hand roll it to produce pieces of chewing gum. It was a success and soon they went into the business of manufacturing chewing gums, experimenting with the flavouring to find which lasts better.

Around the same period, a salesman by the name William Wrigley came up with a marketing technique of handing over free chewing gums to vendors who placed large orders for their items.

When he realised that the gums were more popular than the products he was selling, it prompted him to switch careers. Following a number of false starts, and a huge advertising campaign, Wrigley’s chewing gum became hugely popular.

By the 1920s, demand for chicle rose so much that scientists predicted the total depletion of these forests within four decades.

It was only then that manufacturers moved to synthetic bases, which are not only cheaper, but more readily available.

Most chewing gums today, irrespective of their type, flavour or purpose, have a synthetic base that is made of petroleum, wax and other substances.

Want to learn about a specific scientific invention or discovery? Write to ganesh.a.s@thehindu.co.in with your suggestions.


Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Sep 13, 2021 2:31:46 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/the-sticky-story-of-chewing-gums/article6738832.ece

Next Story