Is there a sustainable chewing gum?

Indulging in chewing gum can have pretty severe consequences. A junior world champion gum chewer by the name of Violet Beauregarde transformed into a giant blueberry after trying an experimental gum during a visit to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. She had to be juiced by the Oompa Loompas and I’m not sure if she was ever the same. In Singapore it’s illegal to import or chew gum, unless it has therapeutic value. Okay, I believe one of these two examples is fictional.

If you want to forgo gum, it’s easy enough — mints are a pretty good substitute. But humans all over the world have been chewing gum for thousands of years. Different cultures came up with different gums — Native Americans made theirs from the sap of sugar pine and spruce trees, while Eskimos used blubber (Erm, I’m good, but thanks anyway). The Mayans’ version of gum may have been the closest to modern commercial gum — they tapped it from their local gum trees, one of various species of Manilkara. It’s still practiced today — gum (chicle) is harvested from living trees (using a method similar to rubber-tapping) by locals known as chicleros, and then boiled down to the desired consistency. On top of these ancient cultural precedents for chewing gum, it has also been asserted that, “gum chewing’s fine when it’s once in a while.”*

So if you do want to chew gum, let’s go through a few factors to consider when evaluating different brands…

*by the Oompa Loompas

A chiclero taps a Manlikara tree for gum in Guatemala. (Source)

Chewing gum — social and environmental impact

The majority of gum brands that you’ll find around the world are made by two or three of the largest food multinationals. About 60% of the market is controlled by Wrigley (owned by Mars, Inc.) and Cadbury (owned by Mondelez) who, between them, sell many brands, including Extra, 5, Eclipse, Trident, Dentyne, and Chiclets. Packaging varies from simple paper to elaborate blister packs. But what’s actually in their gum? Let’s take a look!

What is the base for chewing gum actually made from?

The “gum” component of most brands of chewing gum (Trident, Wrigley’s, etc.) is listed under ingredients as “Gum Base.” The manufacturers consider this gum base to be a trade secret and it’s not required that they list exactly what’s in it — in most cases it’s a mixture of synthetic components that are made from petroleum. In the US, the FDA has approved of 46 or so ingredients that can go into these gum bases, including synthetic rubber, polyethylene (plastic), polyvinyl acetate (wood glue), paraffin wax (a by-product of lubricating oil refineries), fats (hydrogenated vegetable oil) and talc. Here’s a guide to various brands of gum from a plastic perspective by Beth Terry of My Plastic-Free Life.

Some of the other ingredients in conventional gum are suspected to be health hazards, such as aspartame, BHT, and artificial colors. Others, such as xylitol, may be beneficial for your teeth.

Chewing gum that’s not made from petroleum

Depending on where you live, you may be able to find a brand of gum that’s made from plant-based ingredients rather than petrochemicals. I’ve come across at a few — for example, Simple Gum and Glee, both stocked by Whole Foods in the US, and Chicza gum, originally launched in the UK. All three are made from natural chicle harvested from Manilkara trees. Pür gum has crafted a “clean” image but doesn’t contain a natural gum base (or biodegradable packaging) and Chiclets sound like they are made from natural chicle, but not anymore.

Natural gum chicle is a renewable resource (the trees are tapped every so often and continue to grow in the meantime) that could help conserve rainforests and also the cultures that depend on them. Here’s a quote from an article about the launch of Chicza gum in the UK, made using chicle harvested from the rainforests of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula by a collective known as the Consorcio Chiclero.

Macario, 47, head of his tribe in the Gran Pétén rainforest, says the Consorcio Chiclero has rescued a declining chicle industry. Workers who had deserted their villages to provide cheap hotel labour are returning to the rainforest to resume their old skills, tapping the chicozapote trees sustainably once every eight years.

Three gums made from chicle tapped from Manlikara trees: Simply Gum, Glee Gum and Chicza.

Review of a natural gum — Simply Gum

To take one example, here’s my green star review of Simply Gum. Besides chicle from Manlikara trees, the other ingredients in Simply Gum are raw sugar, candelilla wax (from the leaves of Euphorbia shrubs), citric acid, natural flavor (ginger, mint, coffee, etc.), vegetable glycerin (glycerol), and rice flour. The sugar, glycerin, and rice flour are all organic.

Here are a few of the points I considered:

  • As mentioned, most of the ingredients in Simply Gum are organically-grown
  • The gum chicle is tapped from trees, which is a lot more sustainable and less polluting than making gum from petrochemicals
  • The box is purely cardboard, so it’s easily recycled.
  • The gum itself is biodegradable — a big help towards keeping streets clean.
  • Simply Gum is a woman-owned, certified B-Corporation (you can see their scores on the B-corp website).
  • Simply Gum could do a better job at providing more information on a few social and environmental issues. For example: How well are the chicleros paid and is the forest habitat managed responsibly? Is the cardboard used to make the box FSC-certified or recycled? What’s their track record on energy use and waste generation, etc.?
  • In general products tapped from trees like gum, latex, and maple syrup rank as some of the most sustainable products as long as habitats are conserved.

Overall, I think they are doing a pretty good job. Do you know of any other sustainable gum brands available in your area?

Please check out the many other examples of ethical consumerism over on the Green Stars Project.

User-generated ratings for ethical consumerism. Mission: to encourage consideration of the social and environmental impact of our choices as consumers.

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