Some of you might have already encountered the word ‘chicle’, while some of you might not, like me. I said to myself, it does ring a bell, like chewing gum or something. So, I researched, and I was amazed by what I found.
So the main question here that we’re talking about ⎼ ‘is chicle a tree’? Well, the answer is yes. Chicle trees, also called sapodilla trees, are trees that produce latex. This milky latex is also called sap, rubber, or chicle itself. The chicle was used as a natural gum base and paved its way across the United States, Europe, and the Middle East markets. Soon after, its popularity waned, and many brands ceased production. So what is chicle, and did its fanbase dwindle?
Wanna know more about the chicle trees? Join me as we go read over the following sections. Scroll down, keep on reading, and I will tell you about its juicy, sweet, and chewy story.
What is Chicle?
The chicozapote, sapodilla, sapotilla, naseberry, chikoo, chiku, zapote, or the chicle tree (Manilkara zapota L.) is a tree that belongs to the genus Manilkara under the Sapotaceae family and the Magnoliopsida class. The word ‘chicle’ is derived from the Mayan word sicté which means sticky gum.
It produces a milky, copious, gummy latex, called ‘chicle’. It is considered the unique characteristic of this family, produced by its inner bark, and is used as the only source of natural chewing gum.
The sapodilla trees may grow from a height of 60 to 100 feet. Its trunk diameter ranges from a meter and a half. They are strong and wind-resistant, evergreen trees and have an extensive root system.
At the tip of its forked twigs are where glossy green leaves grow that are clustered in spirals. Its flowers are small, bell-shaped, and cream-colored, and form 6 sepals, 6 petals, and 6 stamens.
Its fruits are ovoid in shape, and measure 4 to 10 centimeters across, with characteristic rough, brown skin when ripe, which protects the grainy, translucent yellowish-brown flesh inside. When ripe, its fruits are soft, sweet, and juicy and have a similar taste to pear.
Aside from being popular with American people, the fruits are also one of the all-time favorites among rainforest mammals such as howler monkeys, kinkajous, tapirs, peccaries, and bats. The bats, such as the yellow epauletted bat and the Seba’s short-tailed bat, are one of the best pollinators of the tree – they drink its nectar from its flowers. Then, they carry off the fruits and drop the sapodilla’s black seeds to the ground which may grow into new trees.
Neither veins nor epiphytes grow on the tree. The tree is found in the tropical regions of Central and South America, and it also grows in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, and Venezuela. It is cultivated in India, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, mainly for its fruit, and distributed in countries such as New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Australia, South Africa, and the Philippines.
Chicle grows in Mexico, on the Gulf and Pacific coasts, Chiapas, Yucatán peninsula, and the Great Peten region neighboring Belize and Guatemala. Mexico’s 1,500 hectares worth of land are devoted to its fruit production only, and another 4,000 hectares are grown mainly for the sapodilla trees. The main producers of this natural chewing gum are the Mexican states of Campeche and Quintana Roo, with high demands from Asia and Italy.
The chicle’s texture, elasticity, and capacity to absorb various flavors are the main reasons why the chicle tree is preferred over any other natural gum source and cheaper synthetic resins.
History of Chicle
Did you know that the natural chicle (the milky latex or the resin itself) represents a very small portion (about 3.5%) of the total chewing gum market nowadays? Well, let’s first talk about its history and its inspiring tale. I know that reading history books is really boring but bear with me, the history of chicle was really one of a kind.
Chewing Gums Ancient History
Historically, these natural latexes have long been used already for a thousand years since the Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Aztec times. One report said that the Mayas and Aztecs made the first chewing gums by boiling the chicle sap and molding it into thick blocks, and then cutting them into small pieces to chew.
Also, the Spanish explorers saw the Mayans chewing the chicle and they began to chew it, too. In time, word of this new gum made its way back to Europe, where it became a sensation. While in the northern part of America, the natives used the chicle as their gum during their pastimes, from whom the British settlers eventually adopted its practice.
Hence, for the people who chewed it during the ancient times, chewing the gums served a three-tiered purpose: first, it was a tasty pleasure thus it is served as a refreshment and could quench thirst and staved off hunger during the long journeys through the jungles; second, some gums have antibiotic properties, meaning it can help maintain good oral hygiene and kill off microbes; and lastly, it helped them ease the human need to chew.
How Chewing Gums Were Invented
A businessman and inventor named John B. Curtis became the first person to sell gum made from sweetened resin on the market commercially. At the outbreak of the civil war during the 1850s, Thomas Adams, a New York businessman, photographer, and aspiring inventor was appointed as the Mexican government’s photographer. He was the secretary of the Mexican president and general Antonio López de Santa Anna who was in exile at that time.
Adams noticed that the general liked to chew gum from the Manilkara tree. The general suggested experimenting with the chicle from Mexico since, at that time, natural rubber was expensive, so it would be an excellent synthetic alternative to many manufacturers and could guarantee a high income.
The deposed general looked for someone who could reinvent a new rubber substitute so that he could fund his return to the presidency. He had friends in Mexico who could supply cheap gum to Adams. Adams eventually agreed and bought a ton of chicle, and together, they tried to turn the chicle into synthetic rubber products. They made toys, masks, rain boots, and bicycle tires, but, all his experiments went down the drain.
The Adams New York Gum
Soon, the general returned to Mexico penniless and left Adams with a surplus of chicle than he knew what to do with. The disheartened inventor felt that he wasted about a year’s worth of work. One day, he noticed a girl buying White Mountain paraffin wax at a drugstore and he recalled that chicle was used as chewing gum in Mexico and thought that he could use it using his excess chicle.
Adams told his son, Thomas Jr., about his plan. His son, also a businessman, suggested that they should manufacture several boxes of chewing gum, and give it a name and a label, and offered to take the chewing gum on his next trip to sell it.
In 1869, Adams engaged in manufacturing gums and was inspired to add a sugar coating to his surplus chicle gums, when the gum industry was still in its infancy. The original coating was peppermint-flavored. In 1871, he then opened the world’s first chewing gum factory, the Adams New York Gum.
The gumballs came in wrappers of different colors in a box, with a picture of the New York City Hall on its cover. Chiclets come in two presentations: the 2 gumball boxes and the 12 gumball boxes.
The venture developed quickly and became a success. Adams was driven to design a machine that could mass-produce the gums to make larger orders, where he received a patent in 1871 for his invented machine.
New Factories, New Flavors, And Quick Rose To Fame
In 1888, Adams established a large factory on Sands Street in Brooklyn and produced a new flavor called Tutti-Frutti which became the first gum to be sold in the vending machine of New York substations. They produced about 5 tons (around 4,536 kilograms) of chewing gums daily. His products became more popular than the existing gums at that time.
His company introduced a new flavor called Black Jack (licorice-flavored) in 1884 and Chiclets (named after chicle) in 1899. Although it has produced several new flavors, the peppermint variety still dominated the market. In 1899, he then merged his company with other gum manufacturers from the United States and Canada.
William Wrigley And Other Gum Conglomerates
At around the same time, a young soap salesman named William Wrigley switched careers when he realized that he could make more money in selling gums than soaps. Wrigley also took false starts, like Adams. At one point, Wrigley sent a pack of chewing gum to every resident listed in the United States phone book. He also convinced the U.S. Army to include chewing gum in its rations for its soldiers during World War II.
Adams later teamed up with the Wrigley, and together they established the American Chicle Company. Their companies’ merging led them to a big success in the chewing gum industry. I guess, their hard work really paid off. Several companies also merged into it.
The average American chewed about 105 gum sticks a year by the 1920s, hence creating a massive demand for chicle. The chewing gums’ rising popularity in the market led the scientists to develop new synthetic versions, albeit, some old-fashioned chicle varieties that are manufactured and sold up to this day still have the natural chicle from the sapodilla.
Transition To Adams and Discontinuation
The American Chicle Company was purchased in 1962 by a pharmaceutical company and was renamed Adams in honor of its founder. Many of Adams’ products are out of production nowadays. Chiclets, its best-known gum, was discontinued in 2016. I could say that one of Adams’ lifelong legacies is still used today: some people, especially the old population, still use and pronounce the word ‘chiclet’ instead of ‘chewing gum’.
In October 2019, Abasto, a Hispanic food and beverage entrepreneur platform, surprised the whole world by publishing a webpage showcasing the Adams chewing gums, claiming that for 50 years until the year 2015 it had been made in America, it is now produced mainly in Mexico. Also, some online stores, like Walmart, Amazon, and Kmart, have chiclets that are out of stock.
Though some stores sell gums that are labeled as ‘Chiclets’, they are not the official chewing gum, and they may be copycat brands. Other gums use the same chicle from the sapodilla trees. As Mashed stated ⎼ their existence is still uncertain up until today, but what we do know is that they still exist only if you’re willing to find them. Finders keepers!
Chewing Gum Versus Bubble Gum
The chewing gum also became the precursor of bubble gum. Sometimes, these two are used interchangeably, but they are different gums. So what’s their difference? Their differences lie in bubble-ability, or the ability to make bubbles: bubble gum contains a higher gum base than chewing gums. Plus, their differences are also highlighted in their names, respectively: chewing gums are designed for chewing, while bubble gums are chewed initially, and later, can produce bubbles.
Both are sweetened and many companies added different flavors to them. The flavors of chewing gums are often limited, like spearmint and peppermint, while some may be licorice or watermelon-flavored. In contrast, bubble gum flavors are usually wide range, as they tend to be more colorful and mostly come in fruity flavors, such as strawberry, blueberry, or grapes.
In addition, chewing gums tend to be less elastic, less sweet, mintier, and smaller in size than bubble gums. Both are also used as mouth fresheners, in exercising jaws, maintaining oral hygiene, and more.
Chicle’s Increased Demands Killed Mexico’s Rainforest
Since there was an increased chicle demand, the workers in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize became highly dependent on American corporations buying their products. The fluctuations in the price and the purchase rate had a large impact on these countries’ economies.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, this unsustainable industry set into motion another so-called collapse of the Mayan civilization that continues to still have an effect to this day. In the 1930s, the increased yields killed a quarter of Mexico’s sapodilla trees.
Since it is labor-intensive, expensive, and impractical because it killed off Mexico’s forest and it can be only be tapped infrequently and varies widely in sap yield, the gum manufacturers replaced chicle by using a cheaper, synthetic, natural gum bases, made from either petroleum, wax, and other substances.
Today, in Mexico, it is illegal to harvest the sapodilla trees and their sap because of their value to their people. Additionally, Mexicans are in the middle of ‘healing’ their lost forest. Well, who knows, right? Maybe once the sapodilla forest is ‘healed’ and their saps are replenished, they may return to the gum market.
How To Harvest Chicle From The Tree
The sapodilla tree takes about 8 long years for it to mature sufficiently to be tapped for its latex. The process of getting the sap from the sapodilla tree is called ‘chicle tapping’. The latex, according to phytochemical assays done, has a mixture of terpene-based molecules, for example, the cis- and trans- polyisoprene and pentacyclic triterpenes.
As mentioned above, the sap’s quantity varies per tree. A single tree can produce about 3 to 15 kilograms of sap and is harvested mainly during the rainy season, from August to February.
The chicle is collected by workers called chicleros, who hand-harvest the sap from individual trees by climbing up to 50 feet where they cut zigzag cuts on the bark. These lines release the sap and are then collected in containers. These diagonal cuts, making a characteristic ‘X’ appearance, show that the trees have been used in harvesting chicle for years.
The wounds seal, and the trees continue to grow. Normally, the trees bleed for a maximum of 20 hours after the tapping incisions. Tapping is made every three to four years.
The collected sap is boiled in an open vessel with constant stirring to reduce the water content until it reaches the needed stickiness and elastic consistency to be molded into blocks with each block weighing about 8 to 12 kilograms.
The blocks are then exported primarily to the United States, to be used in manufacturing gums. Unsystematic and excessive tapping especially in the Yucatán peninsula (where it was most abundant) leads to its massive reduction, which is why it is necessitated to use alternatives from other plants that produce latex.
Uses of Chicle
Chicle is a versatile and renewable resource that continues to be used in various products around the world. It has been used in manufacturing plant-based drugs in traditional medicine and fruit production. Extracting its latex sap is primarily used in making chewing gums, where the sap is boiled and dried to make gummy, chewy gums.
The latex can also be used in adhesives, paints, water-resistant varnishes, and insulation in electric conduction cables. The fruits are could be eaten raw, made into jam, custard, ice cream, and sherbet. In traditional medicine, the fruits and leaves are used in treating diarrhea, coughs, and colds.
Its seeds have also been considered for producing biodiesel, mainly due to their high oil content. One research suggested that the chicle tree sap can be considered a suitable substitute for fossil diesel in unmodified diesel engine applications.
The sapodilla wood has a deep red color and is noted for its strongness and durability. For this reason, it was used for making lintels and beams in the temples of the Mayans, which remain intact among the ruins of the Mayan buildings. They are also used to make wharves and piers. Today, its timber is used for railway crossties, floorings, tool handles, and upholstery.
Health Benefits of Chicle
According to chemical studies, chicle trees contain polysaccharides, triterpenes, alkaloids, saponins, tannins, and flavonoids, which could be highlighted as the best biological benefit that we can get from its genus.
Below is a table summarizing the nutritional value of a piece of the gum, weighing about 1.5 grams, and its % daily value based on a 2000 calorie diet:
|Per 1 piece||% Daily Value|
|Total fat||0 grams||0%|
|Saturated fat||0 grams||0%|
|Total carbohydrates||1.5 grams||1%|
|Dietary fiber||0 grams||0%|
The sugar-coated freshness of gums makes chewing them more enjoyable. When chewed, the sugars are released from the gum, and these sugars are absorbed in the stomach. However, too many sugars could add up in calories, which must be burned. Due to its popularity as a mouth freshener, chewing gums comes in minty flavors.
Another question that we might think of about the chewing gums’ nutritional profile is ⎼ ‘is it a food’? Well, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, chewing gum is ‘a food of minimal nutritional value’, which means that it cannot be sold in competition with the school breakfast and lunch programs. Sodas and some candies are also included in this category.
Supporting what the U.S. FDA said, the table above shows that it has around 5.4% calories and has about 1 gram of total sugars per piece. Chewing gum doesn’t cause any adverse health effects, but its ingredients are somewhat controversial.
Chewing gum is generally not considered healthy due to its sugar content. However, sugar-free gum that contains chicle may have some health benefits. Chewing gum can help freshen breath, reduce stress, and promote concentration. Chicle-based gum is also more effective at reducing plaque and gingivitis than synthetic gum.
Some people might find it strange that eating food-grade synthetic ingredients can be good for your health. But science shows that many ways chewing gum may help in staying healthy. Surprisingly, chewing gums have favorable benefits, especially, for our mental and physical health.
Reduce Stress And Boost Memory
Stress can negatively impact our productivity, focus, and wellbeing. So it makes sense that we would look for ways to relieve stress in our lives. Some people might meditate, take a walk, or listen to music.
Several studies have shown that chewing gum while performing tasks can improve brain function in terms of alertness, memory, understanding, and decision making. It has been linked with greater academic success and reduced scores for depression, anxiety, and stress, compared to others who did not chew gum.
However, one study noted that chewing gum may be a bit of a distraction initially, but it can help you focus for longer periods. One study showed that chewing gum could be beneficial only in the first 15-20 minutes of a task.
The science beneath the chewing gum improving memory is unclear. Some theorized that this improvement could be due to the increased blood flow to the brain while chewing gum. The stress-reducing effect is also associated with reduced levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
These brain benefits have been shown to last only while chewing gum. However, chewing gum habitually may benefit from feeling more alert and less stressed throughout the day. So next time you’re feeling stressed, reach for a stick of gum instead of unhealthy snacks. You’ll thank yourself later.
Help In Losing Weight
Chewing gums are low in calories and can give you a sweet taste without negatively affecting your diet. Studies suggested that chewing gums can help reduce the appetite, which in turn could prevent you from overeating.
One study showed that it diminishes feelings of hunger, enhances feelings of satiety, and reduces high carbohydrate intake if chewed between meals in the afternoon. Another study cited that chewing gums could help in burning calories while walking.
However, its weight loss benefits are refuted. Some studies showed that it does not affect the appetite or the energy intake throughout the day and may increase your metabolic rate.
Also, the people who chewed gum were less likely to snack on fruits and had reduced diet quality, however, one gist of this particular study is that the participants chewed a mint-flavored gum before eating, which may have made the fruit taste bad. Additionally, chewing gums have sugars and after chewing it, you may crave more sugar, leading you to ultimately crave junk food.
So, it may make you gain weight, instead. Long-term studies are still needed to determine whether chewing gums can lead to decreased weight.
Improve Oral Health
Though it may seem counterintuitive, chewing gum can be good for your teeth. Sugar-free gum helps clean food off your teeth, increase salivation to fight plaque, and rebuild enamel. This is because of the sugar that feeds the bad bacteria in your mouth, which can damage your teeth and produce cavities.
Chewing gums sweetened with xylitol, sugar alcohol, is more effective than any other sugar-gree gums at preventing tooth decay since xylitol helps prevent bacterial growth. Additionally, chewing gum after a meal increases the saliva flow, which could help wash away harmful sugars and food debris.
Since these tiny gums are made with sugars, dentists recommend looking for chewing gums with the American Cental Association (ADA) Seal of Acceptance, for safer, sugar-free chewing gum. Also, it is safe and healthy to consume chewing gums everyday, as indicated by ADA, as long as it has a seal, and as long as it’s sugar-free, respectively.
Fight Drowsiness And Eliminate Nausea
Chewing gums could be a simple solution that you can use if you are struggling in staying alert at work or in your studies. One study said that it can fight sleepiness. Anything mint-flavored gum could help in battling midday yawns. Sugar-free and ginger gums could soothe an upset stomach, whether it’s morning sickness or motion sickness since mint and gingers are used traditionally in treating nausea.
May Ward Off Ear Infections
The natural act of chewing and swallowing can help in the earwax disposal and clear the middle ear. Xylitol in gums can prevent bacterial growth in the eustachian tubes which connect the nose and the ear.
A Finnish study showed that children from the daycare centers who consumed xylitol regularly in the form of chewing gums, lozenges, and syrup were associated with a 25% decreased risk for developing middle ear infections. It may have shown promising effects in fighting ear infections, however, more studies are still needed to further prove this claim.
Reduce Heartburn And Acid Reflux
Chewing gums for half an hour after a meal can lower the acid levels in the esophagus. This may help in lessening the acid reflux and symptoms of heartburn.
In one British study, the patients diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) were given GERD-inducing high-fat meals on two different days and were instructed to chew gums for 30 minutes on either the first or second day. Interestingly, when the researchers measured their acid levels, they became significantly lower when the participants chewed the gum when they did not.
However, we should also consider that the minty gums, like peppermint, may have an opposing effect and further may aggravate acid reflux. Peppermint tends to relax the lower esophageal sphincter, which can serve as an entry for the acids, causing heartburn.
People in ancient times used chewing gums as a thirst quencher. They might not be an alternative to drinking water, but chewing gum can stimulate saliva production.
Safety And Side Effects Of Chewing Gums
Generally, chewing gums are safe, and beneficial in increasing salivary flow in the mouth. They can help in neutralizing and washing away acids from food when chewed after eating. Nonetheless, chewing too many gums could pose some unwanted side effects.
The sugar alcohols used as sweeteners in sugar-free gums have a laxative effect that could speed up the digestive system and unintentionally loosen the stool. Laxatives are used only when you are having constipation. Sorbitol, sugar alcohol has the potential to work as a laxative, ultimately causing diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal cramps.
Moreover, all sugar alcohols are FODMAPs (fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols), which could cause digestive problems, especially for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). FODMAPs are small carbs that are poorly digested in some individuals. Common FODMAPs include fructose, lactose, fructans, galactans, and polyols.
As mentioned also above, sweetened chewing gums are bad for the teeth as they can cause an increased amount of plaque and tooth decay over time. Obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes are some of the health conditions linked to eating too much sugar.
Chewing gum too often could also cause a jaw problem, called temporomandibular disorder (TMD). Although this condition is rare, this can cause pain when chewing food. Chewing gums can also trigger headaches in people prone to migraine episodes and tension-type headaches.
And perhaps, you have swallowed chewing gum when you were a child? As a kid, we tend to explore many things, and maybe you have swallowed it whole. Mayo Clinic said that chewing gums are indigestible, therefore, the gums don’t stay in the stomach and are excreted in your stool.
However, on rare occasions where you might have swallowed large amounts of these gums, it can cause blockage of the intestines, which may lead to constipation. This could further require a need for surgery to remove it from your digestive tract.
It would be best to chew sugar-free gums made with xylitol, or if FODMAPs cannot be tolerated, you can choose gum sweetened with a low-calorie sweetener (e.g. stevia). It would be also a good practice to read the list of ingredients to check if it doesn’t contain any ingredients you have an intolerance to. You can also check with your dentist or dietician which gum is best suited for you.
Is Chicle Still Used In Gum?
The trees that produce Chicle are not harmed during the harvesting process, and the resin can be collected without damaging the environment. As a result, chicle harvesting can help to support the rainforest ecosystem. There has been a recent interest in its sustainable livelihood strategies that opened up many opportunities for its growing commercialization.
The production and marketing of chicle faced several serious problems, such examples are the following: first, the producers in Mexico have organized ways that enabled the trees to be exploited by both intermediaries and state institutions; and second, the cumbersome and expensive certification process for organics and fair trade.
Though there are few tappers nowadays than in the past, the locals (the chicleros) continue the tapping tradition in their rainforests. As stated by the Arbor Day Foundation, effective conservation can only be achieved if the needs and aspirations of local people are met.
Chicles are still used in some countries, like Japan and China, so the natural gum market is still alive to date, which means that harvesting chicle can still be used as a sustainable method today since nothing is destroyed in chicle tapping. Plus, the wounds from the cuts heal themselves and tapping can be done again after a few years, leaving the forest unharmed. I will never look at chewing gums the same way I did before because now I know about its rich backstory and humble beginnings.
Final Thoughts About Chicle
For centuries, the rainforest has been a source of valuable resources for humans. One of these is the chicle, a sticky latex harvested from the sapodilla trees. Chicle has been used to make chewing gum for thousands of years but was replaced by more widely and readily available synthetic materials.
Since the harvesting of trees for timber is prohibited in major tapping regions and the selective sap extraction does not affect the forest’s diversity, the harvesting of chicle does not harm the tree itself, as it may play a role in conserving the tropical forests making it highly sustainable, especially for the Americans.
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