My mom would always warn my sisters and I to not swallow our gum because it would stay in our stomachs forever. It made me wonder: If this isn’t meant to be eaten, why are we putting it in our mouths in the first place? And what is this mystery substance that can withstand the effects of stomach acids? Let’s debunk this myth.
What are chewing gum ingredients?
People have been chewing on stuff for a long time. Nearly 5,000 years ago, indigenous tribes in both Europe and Central/South America would chew on tars, resins, and naturally occurring gums from certain trees. For example: Ancient Greeks would chomp down on mastic gum, while Mayans and Aztecs chewed chicle. Both were used to maintain dental health in a time before dentists.
Today’s gum has come a long way from its natural origins. These days, it’s almost completely synthetic; ingredients include “gum base,” sweeteners, glycerine, softeners, colors and flavors, and, if the gum has a hard coating, polyol.
What the heck is gum base? As far as I can tell, it’s a chemistry project. Gum base has three main components: polymers, plasticizers, and resins. Polymers give gum its elasticity and stickiness. Plasticizers reduce brittleness and increase flexibility. Resins are responsible for the chewiness.
Each gum brand has its own proprietary gum base, so you never really know what is actually in it. The FDA has an approved list of ingredients for gum base, so there’s likely to be some combination of these ingredients in every brand of gum.
You’ll notice the word “plastic” popping up here. Does that mean that gum has plastic in it? Technically, yes. That’s probably why that myth about gum staying in your stomach exists. But never fear: Even though the human stomach can not digest gum base, it’s savvy enough to force that junk out of your system.
How is gum made?
The proprietary gum base comes first. I imagine these factories just have huge vats of the stuff constantly being mixed, the kind that Joker’s lackeys fall into in a Batman comic. The gum base is then mixed with the secondary ingredients like colors and flavors while also being heated.
Further processing is done to create shape and to smooth out the gum’s texture. It’s either pressed into thin sheets that can be chopped up into sticks of gum, or it’s formed into gum balls and other unique shapes, depending on the brand.
Finally, the polyol is added, either in a sprinkled powder or as a coating, like the kind you find on a chiclet. Then it’s all packed up and shipped to stores.
How is bubble gum made? Is it any different?
Ever try to blow a bubble with Trident? It’s just not as satisfying as doing the same with something like Big League Chew. Does that mean that bubble gum has some kind of “special sauce” that makes it bubblier?
Not exactly. Bubble gum goes through the same exact process as other chewing gums, there’s just a slight difference in its gum base. What is that difference? It’s science that I don’t understand. But it has something to do with molecular weight—more weight means more ability to expand.
You should thank the gum-chewing gods that I am not in charge of this whole process.