Chewing Gum: Boon or Bane?

Donald NorfolkA few days ago I posted a piece extolling the virtues of ‘head digestion’, the practice of thoroughly chewing every mouthful of food before it is swallowed. (See ‘Something to Chew Over’ ) At its end I promised that in the next few days I’d have more to say about the benefits and hazards of chewing gum. This posting is a fulfilment of that promise.

For centuries people throughout the world have derived enjoyment from chewing nuts, berries and fruits. The Malaysians have obtained a mild lift from chewing the areca nut, generally wrapped in a Betel leaf to give the mix a little added flavour. In Peru the natives have gained a similar buzz by chewing the seeds of the cacao tree which contains a caffeine-like substance called theobroma. (Food of the Gods.) At some time the Indians of North America took to chewing chicle, the natural gum extracted from an evergreen tree which grows rampant in the tropics of Central America. This eventually became a coast-to-coast US pastime, particularly when the gum was made from synthetic rubber which was cheaper and more easily produced. The practice soon gained its medical advocates. Ever since World War One the US military authorities have supplied the armed forces with free chewing gum, on the grounds that its helps relieve stress and aid concentration. Now the gum is fortified with caffeine to keep the troops alert during long spells of duty, each tablet containing the dose provided by an average cup of coffee.

The Canadian and New Zealand governments have also supply their troops with chewing gum, in their case as an aid to dental hygiene. Surgeons today also recommend its use after intestinal surgery, one Japanese study demonstrating that the act of chewing helps to stimulate the gastro-colic reflex which can help patients recover more quickly from colonic surgery. Sometimes these operations cause the small bowel to go into spasm, but the trial revealed that patients who took chewing gum during the post-operative period started passing wind two days earlier than

those who didn’t.

During the Second World War the Wrigley habit gained a foothold in Britain, when schoolboys gratefully made use of the chewing the gum given to them as a goodwill gift by GI soldiers. (Their elder sisters were similarly lured by free handouts of nylon stockings.) This practice has grown and accounts for the unsightly mess we now see on Britain’s urban streets. Today local councils throughout the UK spend an estimated £150 million a year clearing their pavements of discarded gum. Some have tried cunning tricks to overcome the menace. For a while a few erected placards of unpopular public figures – such as Saddam Hussein and Edwina Currie – urging youngsters to take their revenge by plastering their faces with wads of spent gum. The ruse didn’t work, because it failed to take into account the phenomenon of ‘contrary behaviour’, a psychological term for the ornery tendency of youngsters and adults to do the very opposite of whatever authority figures suggest. This became apparent to the Gloucester County Council, which carried out its own investigation and decided to erect blank gum boards carrying the one-line instruction: ‘Please do not stick your gum on this board’.

At present we may hope that one day people will come to respect their local environments and place their grey-white gunge in litter bins. Chewing gum has its place, and it’s in the mouth and not on the pavements. If this fails, then maybe people could be persuaded to adopt a new product which should be on the market later this year. It’s been developed by Revolymer, a company which claims that its uniquely formulated gum dissolves in water so can easily be hosed off the payment and shampooed from the hair. If this doesn’t solve the problem there’s a risk that an overzealous government might ban the sale of chewing gum – as has been done in Singapore – on the grounds that it contains a small amount of vinyl acetate, a potential carcinogen. I personally don’t chew gum, but I would march to the barricades to protect the rights of others who wish so to do. Even if some of it ends up on city pavements, I find it far less offensive than garish billboards, wailing police sirens and wind-blown litter.

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