Gum from tree sap to synthetic substitute

  • A bubble gum blowing contest during ItascaFest. Chewing gum has existed in one form or another for around 2,000 years.

    A bubble gum blowing contest during ItascaFest. Chewing gum has existed in one form or another for around 2,000 years. Daily Herald file photo

 
Posted6/20/2019 4:29 PM

"How is gum made?" a participant in the Libertyville Parks Teen Travelers bike camp asked.

The story of gum is not all sweet and snappy. Chewing gum goes way back -- about 2,000 years. People through the ages have enjoyed chewing resins or wax for the purpose of, well, chewing something.

 

But the story of chewing gum as we know it starts with the Mayans, who realized that when boiled, chewing sap from the Sapodilla tree made breath sweeter.

The trees, found in the rainforests of the Yucatán, Belize and Guatemala, cannot be farmed. Chicleros harvest the sap by scoring the tree bark and boiling the sap to form chicle, or gum. Without added flavor, chicle is not sweet.

The towering evergreen Sapodilla tree grows sweet, brown-yellow, egg-shaped fruit. Rainforest animals and people enjoy its pear-like flavor. Bats slurp the flower nectar and inadvertently spread the seeds.

When the tree bark is slashed in a zigzag, white sap oozes out and is collected in basins. The sap is boiled and becomes a firm, flavorless, snappy gum called chicle.

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In the 1800s, American Thomas Adams was familiar with the popularity of chicle in Mexico. His boss was Mexican President Santa Anna, who enjoyed chewing the bland treat.

Adams cooked up a new idea -- he combined sugar and flavoring to the chicle, creating a very popular treat -- Chiclets peppermint and fruit-flavored chewing gums.

The taste for sweet gum has become a mainstay in the candy market, accounting for 11% of today's candy sales.

In the old days, harvesting the sap required backbreaking work to push into the remote areas of the rainforest. Chicleros, or chicle harvesters, were paid very little, and working conditions meant camping in the rainforest for the 4-month-long rainy season when the Sapodilla sap flowed.

Trees slashed using sharp machetes could be tapped only five times without risking harming the tree. Sap was boiled in the Chiclero camps to make chicle. This process yielded the tons of chicle needed to satisfy gum chewers into the late 1800s, but wealthy gum tycoons Adams and William Wrigley sought easier ways to produce the sticky base.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Their experts developed a synthetic substitute, and the need for chicle harvesting stopped by the 1930s.

Some gum producers today are snapping back to the old way of producing gum, bringing an organic, natural alternative to candy stands. Sap from the Sapodilla tree is once again in demand and boiled into chicle to make the sticky gum base.

Leading the pack is best-seller Glee Gum with fair-trade chicle, sugar and non-GMO ingredients. Glee is available in grocery stores, or you can make your own gum with Glee's "Make Your Own Chewing Gum" kits.

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