The Story of Glee
When you pop a piece of gum into your mouth, you're more likely to be concerned with its taste and bubble capabilities than with its history. But if you were to wonder about the origins of your gum, you'd have a lot more to chew on. The story behind chewing gum is a flavorful one, complete with an unlikely partnership between a famous Mexican general and an American inventor, wild get-rich-quick schemes, and the mastication habits of a lost civilization.
Chewing for pleasure goes back to the Ancient Greeks, who chewed on the resin of the mastic tree. The Maya, too, developed the custom well over a thousand years ago, chewing the coagulated sap of the Sapodilla tree, a treat known today as chicle. The Maya abandoned their cities for mysterious reasons around the year 800, but fortunately for us, they retained their custom of chewing chicle.
1869 marks the year that modern day gum products were born. The famous Mexican General, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (remember the Alamo?) was looking for a way to commercially exploit the properties of chicle. Unaware of its chewable virtues, Santa Anna originally hoped chicle could be exported as a rubber substitute, and passed it along to American inventor Thomas Adams. Adams found chicle unsuitable as a base for rubber, but realized its potential as a chewing gum after boiling it and rolling it in sugar. His boiled chicle vastly outsold all other varieties of gum available at the time, and thus revolutionized the industry.
The market for chewing gum has grown remarkably through the years, from a yearly consumption in the United States of 39 sticks per person in 1914 to 200 sticks per person today. However, almost all gum is now made completely from synthetic materials. Only Glee chewing gum, and some sold in the Far East contain chicle.
In Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize, chicle still represents an important part of the economy for the chicleros who harvest it. From September to January, a time of torrential rains, the chicleros hike out to remote parts of the rainforest, seeking either virgin chicle trees or those that were tapped several years before. They climb into the tree and make a series of cuts with their machete, taking care that they cut only deep enough to allow the white sap to bleed out, but not deep enough to expose the tree to insects or infection. Each tapping only yields about 2.5 pounds of gum over a six-hour period, and a chiclero will tap 6-12 trees a day in order to make his quota.
The movement for rainforest sustainability depends, in part, on non-timber forest products, advocating for renewable resources that can be made economically viable. Verve hopes that the forest can be more profitable standing than cut down.
Now there's something to chew on, along with your next piece of chicle-based gum!