Love gum? You’re not alone. Nearly 165 million Americans chewed gum in 2019 — about half the population of the United States.
But why do people chew gum? If an anthropologist from outer space were to visit a typical supermarket, they would be mystified by the shelves near the checkout aisle displaying dozens of brightly packaged flavored gums. Chewing without actually eating seems a bit like the oral equivalent of jogging on a treadmill. And yet, people have been indulging in gum for thousands of years. It turns out that this long-standing cultural habit has stuck around for a good reason: Chewing gum can deliver some surprising benefits (even boosting mental performance!) and its future looks bright. Gum innovation is happening at a fast and furious clip — from medicated chewing gum to a highly stretchable and sensitive wearable gum sensor to a prom dress made from gum wrappers to CBD-enhanced chicle and more. Gum has changed a lot over the years: Here’s where it started — and where it’s going.
A brief history of gum
Chewing gum has been around a long time. In Ancient Greece, Pliny the Elder wrote about a chewable resin from a tree called mastich that was chewed (or masticated, if you will), and archeological evidence indicates that chewing birch bark tar was popular with stone-age Scandinavians 9,000 years ago.
Ancient Mayans and Aztecs chewed a substance called chicle, made from the sapodilla tree, to quench thirst or quell hunger — Aztec culture held that only single women and children were permitted to chew in public; men could only indulge in private to clean their teeth. In North America, Native Americans chewed spruce tree resin, a practice that European settlers later picked up and capitalized on. In the late 1840s, John Bacon Curtis developed the first commercial spruce tree gum by boiling resin, cutting it into strips, which he then coated in cornstarch to prevent sticking. Curtis went on to construct the world’s first chewing gum factory in Portland, Maine, in the early 1850s.
The first medicated gum, Aspergum, a chewable aspirin product, was launched in 1928 and is still made today. However, chewing gum did not fully gain traction as a dependable drug delivery system until the advent of nicotine-replacement gum in the 1970s.
The future is functional
While sugar-free gum is known to provide oral health benefits and help prevent cavities when chewed for 20 minutes after eating, the future of gum is focused on delivering other benefits too. It turns out that gum is an ideal delivery vehicle for all manner of “functional” ingredients from vitamins, minerals, prescription medicine, botanical compounds, caffeine, and more — making it the darling of the functional foods market.
“Functional gum” is the name for types of chewing gum that offer some practical function in addition to the masticating joy that traditional chewing gum already provides. Need some help recovering from a hangover? Want to focus your attention for a late-night study session? Have jet lag? Need an energy boost? Perhaps some help falling asleep? Welcome to the bold new world of functional chewing gum.
From brain-boosting neuro gum to CBD gum that may help ease anxiety to immuno-support gum (which contains adaptogens, botanicals, minerals, and vitamins that boost the body's ability to protect itself) to mood-enhancing gums that target the body's stress-inducing cortisol levels to a whole host of medicated gums on the development horizon — it seems that a gum revolution is well underway.
Gum as medication delivery vehicle
The healthcare industry was an early adopter of the functional gum market — most notably for smoking cessation. With the average American chewing 300 sticks of gum a year, researchers have been looking at ways to use this vernacular activity to deliver medicines.
As a drug delivery vehicle, chewing gum facilitates rapid drug absorption through the oral mucosa for fast onset of action and bioavailability. Nicotine replacement gum was developed in Sweden in the 1970s and was the brainchild of Dr. Ove Fernö, lead researcher at Swedish pharmaceutical company Leo AB. He was inspired by how submariners and aviation crews switched to chewing tobacco when unable to smoke; Dr. Fernö’s gum innovation allowed for a steady, controlled release of nicotine as the gum was chewed, bringing relief from cravings and other nicotine withdrawal symptoms.
If gum is such an effective medication delivery vehicle, why is it not more widely used?
A gum-chewing robot has the answer
Until recently, there was no gold-standard for testing the drug release and efficacy of medicated chewing gum in a person. Gum’s therapeutic effect depends on chewing, and every person has their own chewing style — with differing force, frequency, and timing — which can lead to varying results and dosing.
To help solve this problem, a team of biomedical engineers at the University of Bristol created a gum-chewing robot to simulate precisely how medicated gum works, featuring humanoid jaws and simulated saliva. In the study, scientists gave the robot gum containing xylitol, an artificial sweetener that has been shown to deliver oral health benefits. Scientists measured the amount of xylitol released from the robot's gum into its simulated saliva at 5, 10, 15, and 20-minute intervals of continuous chomping. They found that the sweetener's largest release was in the first 5 minutes of the robot's chewing — giving pharmaceutical companies a mechanical way to measure and engineer future medications in gum form.
The new age of gum infused with benefits is here. Perhaps soon, anti-aging, cholesterol-lowering, acne-fighting, IQ-enhancing, menopause-managing, memory-boosting, cellulite-treating gums will be readily available at a pharmacy near you. Who knew that blowing bubbles would one day pay health and wellness dividends?