Long before gum, humanity has loved to chew on something

WASHINGTON — Chewing gum is nothing new.

In fact, it goes way back thousands of years, said Sally Squires, who writes the Lean Plate Club™ blog. People chewed birch bark tar, believing it had medicinal and antiseptic properties.

“I thought it might be more of a modern trend, but in fact this goes way back,” she said. “It goes to the Neolithic period. Who knew?”

The trend took multiple forms among various cultures, she said:

  • Six-thousand-year-old chewing gum made from birch bark tar, with tooth imprints, has been found in Finland.
  • The ancient Greeks preferred mastic tree bark.
  • Ancient Mayans chewed chicle.
  • Eskimos preferred blubber.
  • Coca leaves were the choice of South Americans.
  • The Chinese munched on ginseng root.
  • Early American settlers chewed tobacco leaves.
  • Native Americans chewed sugar pine and spruce sap.

“The U.S. is where it really evolved,” Squires said, “and this really began in the mid-1800s.”

John B. Curtis, a businessman from Maine, developed and sold the first commercial chewing gum. He used spruce resin, beeswax and flavorings to make spruce gum, which he sold as “The State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum.” Chiclets was one of the early brands of gum that was still in favor in the mid-20th century.

One factor in gum’s appeal was the sweetness. (During Curtis’s era, Squires said, people used to dip their gum into powdered sugar to make it sweeter.)

Chewing gum does have actual health benefits, too. Sugar-free gum can be good for dental hygiene and could help prevent tooth decay. Studies have also shown more recently that chewing gum improves mood, attention and mental performance.

In addition, researchers are looking at chewing gum as a way to deliver medicines to patients who may not be able to swallow certain medicines — similar to how nicotine gum helps smokers kick the habit.

There’s evidence that chewing gum helps to improve gingival scores in older people as well. And surprisingly, chewing gum can be very useful for patients who have had intestinal surgery, or women who’ve had a cesarean section.

“It helps your GI tract start to do the things that it’s supposed to do, particularly after you’ve had abdominal surgery,” Squires said.

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