Chewing Gum: Friend or foe?

Chewing gum, a popular fad in the United Staes, has been known to reduce stress. (Illustration/Austin Macdonald)

Like many cultural consumer products of the United States, chewing gum is a product of convenience with little attention to how it’s made and what happens when it has been used up. Let’s take a closer look at what modern chewing gum is and how it can affect our bodies and the environment.

Chewing gum seems like commonplace here in the United States. It can be purchased at virtually every gas station and convenience store around the country and arguably most of the Western world. It has even made its way into American culture through baseball, with renditions like big league chew. But according to several sources, humans have been chewing ‘gum’ for a very long time. Gum has proven to reduce stress and help keep people focused, not to mention clean your teeth and freshen breath. However, these are only its topical benefits.

Gum has now become a medium for medicines like cough and cold symptom reducers and is used to treat cigarette addiction through nicotine gum. But the gum of the old world is very different that what we are used to seeing today. If we look at historical records, gums were typically derived from saps and resins produced by various trees and plants. After World War II, chemists gained the ability to produce rubber synthetically, which opened the doors to new techniques and chemicals that were brought to attention.

Over the years, as synthetic rubbers and gum became easier and more efficient to produce, it quickly beat out many of the more natural alternatives. But some of the compounds and chemicals used in the production might be much more problematic than getting a piece stuck on your shoe or scraping dried globs off the bottom of desks and tables.

An ingredient of concern that comes to mind first is aspartame. The same, strangely sweet tasting substance found in many diet products is about 180 times sweeter than sugar. This allows the product to maintain a sweet taste without loading on the calories of conventional sugars.

While this artificial sweetener compound by itself has not show to be sufficiently toxic, when heated quickly or mishandled in storage, it is capable of breaking down into two constituent compounds (phenylalanine and aspartic acid) that both have shown potential to cause nerve brain damage, specifically in natal development of mammals.

Chewing gum has also been known to include artificial sweeteners and preservatives that recently are drawing concern. (Illustration/Austin Macdonald)

It should be noted that there has been extensive research on aspartame and its constituents but the results are very mixed. There are several authoritative biochemical papers defending the natural mechanics of these compounds to be processed by the body with no residual harm. These papers include many medial research papers that have been published in the past 10 years.

The FDA currently regulates the levels of aspartame allowed in different products depending on their type and intended consumption use.

One of the more recent concerns is with preservatives known as butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene or BHA and BHT for short. Both of which have been banned in several countries due to toxicity reports. In the early 2000s, BHA was deemed to be “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the Federally funded U.S. National Toxicology Program after experimental research on animals. BHA in consumer products is permitted by the FDA as a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) additive. This term refers to any ingredient to a food product that is not regulated by the FDA and might currently be under testing. Such a product is capable of gaining this status through self-affirmation of the chemical’s manufacturer or through a review form the FDA. Either way, these are potentially harmful products that are found in many chewing gums brands like Orbit, Extra and Trident – the same ones who do a good job of keeping this out of public knowledge. Just Google gum brands with BHA or BHT and see what comes up: not much slander on the big gum producers. It’s only alternative are natural gums.

While the potential health hazards are important, the environmental damage is present too. These new synthesized gums are much more durable to give a long lasting chew, clean your teeth etc. For urban areas it can cause real problems, as these synthetic gums do not biodegrade like their natural counterparts, forming almost epoxy-like patches in public areas. Synthetic gum has also affected wild animals that happen to mistake it for food, causing severe problems and death. Any product that is designed for a one-time use and then discarded to a non-returnable state should not be consumed for the sake of preventing unnecessary harm to our ecosystems.

But if you absolutely have to have chewing gum, here are a few companies with a sustainable future in mind: Simply Gum, Glee Gum and Train Gum. Many of these products have natural gum bases and use fair trade sweeteners and natural oils for flavor so you can chew at peace.


Dan Wood is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.wood@uconn.edu.