By Roman Sanchez
With over 100,000 tons of chewing gum being consumed every year, it is no wonder that an estimated 374 trillion sticks are produced amongst 115 manufacturing companies in over thirty countries (Chewing Gum). So while it seems as though every person on this planet knows what gum is and plants theories on its practices, this is not the case.
With a vast history spanning hundreds of years and a multi-billion dollar industry, the true impact chewing gum has had on us, as a civilization, and on our planet which we call home is extraordinary. Why it has taken us so long to realize the drastic negative impact it has caused and why we have not taken necessary precautions to caution ourselves and our planet’s wellbeing is beyond me.
A Short History of Chewing Gum
People throughout history have been recorded chewing on natural materials for centuries. Some Northern Europeans have been historically credited for chewing birch bark tar for over 9,000 years for reasons ranging from medicinal to enjoyment. Even the Mayans chewed a sap called chicle from the sapodilla tree to fight hunger and quench thirst, which they later taught to colonists. Chicle was popular to the native Mexicans and Aztecs whom structured a social acceptance around the chewing of the aforementioned materials. In their traditions, single women and children were publicly allowed to consume. An even more specific aspect is that widows and married women were allowed to chew it privately when using it to freshen their breath. Men were not publicly allowed to do so but, in private, they would do so in order to clean their teeth. The ancient Greeks were even fond of this pastime for similar reasons, as a form of hygiene.
John Curtis is credited in the 1840s for producing the first commercial spruce tree gum in which he cut them into strips, similar how we identify packaged chewing gum today. Curtis learned, however, that spruce resin ended up getting hard after chewed and tasted gross which is why he moved to paraffin wax.
Following Curtis, New York City’s Thomas Adams was able to cooperate with Mexican President Antonio Lopez De Santa Anna to attain chicle. Antonio had hopes for turning the ingredient into rubber but gave up after not concluding any extraordinary results. Adams followed up with chicle by incorporating it into a set of ingredients to form a better type of chewing gum which was later manufactured to great success. By the 1880s, he was selling his gum all across the country to no surprise.
One of the most well-known gum makers today, Wrigley, actually started as a salesman. By this point, there were a plethora of competitors in the chewing gum industry but he did not let this stop his ambition to be the best. Instead, he knew the secret to success was outstanding marketing tactics—Wrigley sent out samples to millions of random people found in phone books and later sent them out to children on their birthday. Clearly, as this was many’s first experience with chewing gum, they couldn’t get enough of it.
The concept and evolution of bubble gum came from Frank Fleer, who was a gum maker since the 1880s too. He, like Wrigley, was searching for a way to separate himself from his competition so he spent resources to develop a new chewing gum ideal for blowing bubbles with. The Blibber-Blubber was introduced in 1906 to no success due to the over-stickiness and it wasn’t until 1928 that Dubble Bubble was brought into the market (Wrigley).
Today, each brand of chewing gum has various specific ingredients to get it to their ideal texture and taste but most contain the same core components. Like all mass productions, the process is fully mechanized into a concise set of five steps: making the basis gum base, adding flavor, articulating the chewiness, cutting, and packaging (Chewing Gum Facts).
Risks, Hazards, and Benefits
One of the most common and highly debated benefits to chewing gum is that it improves brain retention/health which leads to more success in school. In one of these many extensive lab tests, a group of researches studied over two hundred students from St. Lawrence University.
They found that a burst of gum-chewing before testing improved a student's performance on several of the tests, but only for a short period. The effect was strongest right after gum-chewing, and dropped to normal levels within 20 minutes. The gum- chewing helped during recall and memory tasks especially. ‘Within the 15-to-20-minute 'window' of the effect, the chewing-gum group recalled 25-to-50-percent more items than the controls, which is statistically significant, but in practical terms amounts to a difference of two-to-three words’ (Welsh).
In short, scientists believe that the stimulation in the brain is what helps get more blood flowing to the head and literally get the creative juices flowing. Other benefits to chewing gum include less occupational stress (Smith) because of reduction of stress hormones like cortisol (Scholey).
Another debated benefit to chewing gum is how healthy sugar-free gum is to your teeth’s wellbeing. The welfare comes with the type of gum one chooses. The beneficiaries are in the sugar-free gums that are sweetened with xylitol which make it easy for the oral bacteria, Streptococcus, to grow. This prevents cavities from growing because the bacteria loses the ability to stick to the tooth. If chewed routinely, this process can aid in providing protection long-term against certain types of bacteria that causes decay on the surfaces of your teeth. Henceforth, this act of chewing sugarless gum can prevent tooth decay if consumed approximately twenty minutes after meals. The American Dental Association recommends purchasing and using chewing gums that have the ADA Seal of Acceptance.
One more highly discusses topic surrounding the chewy snack is what happens when one swallows it. Some debate that it is digestible and nothing hazardous can come from it while others insist that the substance is indigestible and will live inside your stomach for years at at time. However, science has proven that the gum’s ingredients are all completely digestible and does not need years to process. Rather, it only needs a day or two to pass in stool with a bowel movement.
The real danger of chewing gum lays in the chance that one can choke on a piece when consuming. Plain and simply, the American Academy of Pediatrics has listed chewing gum as a choking hazard as it poses a threat to clogging the child’s throat (Encyclopedia). With over 80% of the children whom are treated in emergency hospitals being age four or younger, obstruction to windpipes have been one of the leading causes. Too, the death rate for children under the age of three whom have passed due to choking on a food item is skyrocketing with non-food items close behind.
The caution of choking does not pertain exclusively to children and toddlers but even poses a threat to adults. With about 3,000 adults dying each year from choking on food, it is a not uncommon to recognize the serious caution that should be taken when consuming this tasty treat. Too frequently can one run across a news article about a semi-bizarre case involving someone choking to death on gum and there is no clear solution to it rather than the obvious Heimlich Maneuver and CPR.
Looking through a much broader lens, the production of chewing gum and its’ after life have had a tremendous impact on the environment. One of the most prominent points is the act of littering or improper disposal of the gum and its’ packaging.
The first issue is the cleaning materials and chemicals needed to clean gum off of public sidewalks and pavements. The chemicals are not environmentally friendly and are actually considered toxic to nature. With the manufactured ingredients comes a downside of not being biodegradable. This means that when the gum does not end up in a nearby trashcan and instead gets spit out into the dirt or grass, it poses another set of variable threats. Because it is incapable of breaking down naturally like other fruits and compost can, it remains as a pink, white, or blue blob of material in nature. It is common to see animals such as birds, squirrels, and other small forest creatures mistake the chewed up blob for a berry or food (Baer). This is clearly a serious threat as it clogs their digestive system and causes them to choke or not be able to consume foods which leads to deadly outcomes.
In addition to the lifespan of the gum, the industrial waste (resources, time, and energy) that are needed to mass produce this highly demanded product is very unhealthy for our environment. More specifically, the processes to make the product results in byproduct that is damaging our air quality and serving as a catalyst in long-term effects such as global warming and street pollution. Speaking of street pollution, the impact the necessary wrapping and packaging has when transported (in obvious large bulks and quantities) adds to this concept of air pollution.
The other most commonly or most obvious signs of pollution is the improper waste disposal of the packaging and wrapper. Over $2,000,000 is spent to dispose and collect gum packaging from landfills every year even when only 20% of gum is disposes properly.
Another aspect that negatively impacts the environment is due to one of the ingredients: acetate, a gum flavorer. This ingredient happens to be a natural bee pheromone which causes bees to think it is a flower. However, after getting too close to it, it increases the likelihood of one getting stuck to the waste. Especially in today’s climate and circumstances, the bee’s story has been intensely brought into the limelight so many are aware of the risks that extinction would pose on our environment and society.
Simply put, millions of dollars are being spent on removing gum waste. In London alone, millions of pounds are spent on just the removal from public streets. This is a testament to the hard-working tax dollars (56 million pounds across the United Kingdom) being virtually and arguably wasted on something that could easily be prevented. Now when private businesses, mom and pop shops, or small associations have to get rid of the improperly disposes waste, the costs come from their savings and it is sad that they even have to hit these precautions when it’s not their fault (Lam).
In America, chewing gum has median sales upwards of $657 million each year as over 56% of the country chews. It is not hard to comprehend these huge numbers when considering that over 7% of American households have chewed more than sixteen pieces of gum in the last week. This pattern of chewing articulates how addicting the act is and, similar to other drugs or addicting substances, makes people want more than one any given day.
In non-profit land, there are many environmental organizations whom have ongoing projects that outline how they will attempt to clean and declutter the gum wastage on areas of our planet. One in particular, Pure Shore in England, has been exceptionally successful. Their website states the following:
The campaign demonstrates just how big a problem chewing gum is in our public spaces. Last year, the amount of gum removed from Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street equated to the size of around 12 football pitches, costing millions of pounds to clean up. Rory Stewart MP, Parliamentary under Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs, commented: “Councils spend around £56 million per year cleaning up the horrible mess it leaves and so I’m pleased to see efforts to help highlight the problem.” (Pure Shore)
Organizations similar to Pure Shore are putting in valid efforts but the costs to sustain them are significantly high, as noted above and raises the question of whether or not it is ethically, financially, and/or physically worth the time and effort.
With all of this said, I firmly believe that there is no right or wrong solution. Nor am I one to judge because I’d be lying if I didn’t say I chewed an abnormal amount of gum myself. No single answer will make everyone content but if there is one aspect everyone should be aware of, it is the drastic impacts we are making on the world around us with this single object. How can we change things? Can one person have an impact? Based on the aforementioned statistics, I do believe that we can and that it is rather easy. For gum chewers, we must make absolute sure to properly dispose of our sticky friends and perhaps cut down just a tad every once in a while—perhaps an Altoid or Tic Tac instead? For the non-gum chewers, remind your friends of the previous note and I’d also challenge you to consider what other products you consume that could be having very similar effects on our society and environment and try to cut back on that too. As Robert Kennedy said, “the purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better” and this is one step.
Baer, Andrew. What Effects Does Bubble Gum Have On The Environment? Sciencing. Nature Column. 24 April 2017. Accessed 9 December 2017. https://sciencing.com/effects- bubble-gum-environment-8439501.html
Chewing Gum Facts. How Chewing Gum Is Made? Accessed 9 December 2017. http:// www.chewinggumfacts.com/making-chewing-gum/how-chewing-gum-is-made/
Delta Dental. Gum Chewing: Helpful or Harmful? Accessed 9 December 2017. https://www.deltadentalins.com/oral_health/gum-chewing.html
Encyclopedia. Gale Encyclopedia of Children’s Health: Infancy Through Adolescence. 2006. Accessed 9 December 2017. http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/diseases-and- conditions/pathology/choking
Lam, Bourree. Chew On This: What Gum Has Cost Society in Its 5,000-Year History. The Atlantic. 5 December 2014. Accessed 9 December 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/ business/archive/2014/12/chew-on-this-what-gum-has-cost-society-in-its-5000-year- history/383452/
Pure Shore. The Cost of Chewing Gum. 7 January 2016. Accessed 9 December 2017. www.pureshore.co
Scholey, Andrew. Chewing Gum Alleviates Negative Mood and Reduces Cortisol During Acute Laboratory Psychological Stress. NCBI: PubMed. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. 22 June 2009. Accessed 9 December 2017.
Smith, AP. Chewing Gum, Occupational Stress, Work Performance. NCBI: PubMed. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. 10 October 2016. Accessed 9 December 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22390954
Welsh, Jennifer. Live Science. Gum-Chewing Improves Test Performace, Study Suggests. 16 December 2011. Accessed 9 December 2017. https://www.livescience.com/17520- chewing-gum-test-performance.html
Wrigley. History of Gum. Wrigley: A Subsidiary of Mars, Incorporated. Accessed 9 December 2017. http://www.wrigley.com/global/about-us/history-gum.aspx