Chewing Gum

Did you know that the chewing gum we know today originated from the Mayan culture?

The appearance of chewing gum dates back to pre-Hispanic times, approximately two thousand years ago. The base of the chewing gum was the sap or resin of the Manilkara Zapota tree commonly known as Chicozapote. Native to the lands dominated by the Mayan civilization, (Central America and South of Mexico, specifically the states of Campeche and Quintana Roo), its light brown fruit contains black seeds and its meat has a very pleasant flavor.

The sap was obtained from the Chicozapote by means of deep zigzag cuts on the bark that allowed the resin extracted to be directed to the containers placed in the lower part of the tree where it was collected.

After the sap dried, there was a “gum substance” that could be chewed.  It was molded into small bars and wrapped in corn leaves to harden and store it. This gum was used to clean teeth, quench thirst in times of drought, ward off hunger from ritual fasting and was even used in some religious ceremonies.

The chewing gum was called “Sicté”, the Mayan word which means blood or vital fluid, alluding to the resin of the wounded tree.

The “Sicté” passed from the Mayan culture to the Mexica (indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico who were the rulers of the Aztec Empire) in the central part of Mexico with the name “tzictli”. However, chewing gum was not well regarded among the Mexica as it was considered an immoral or evil habit amongst women.  Despite this, they used it to avoid bad breath.

From the indigenous cultures, the chewing gum began to be used with more freedom in the colonial and post-Independence periods. Decades later, after much political instability, the president and dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna, was forced to leave his government position and went into exile to the United States of America.

Among the things he took with him was a large supply of natural chewing gum, being he was so found of it. Seeing the chewing gum, an inventor and friend of his, Thomas Adams, thought it would be a good substitute for rubber which at that time was prohibitively priced.  The substitution failed due to the softness of the chewing gum, and so he decided that he could substitute for paraffin that was used for chewing at that time. Once the patent was obtained in 1871, the industrialist commercialized it as Adams New York Chewing Gum. Soon after, he added licorice and maple syrup to the gum which became so popular, it made the Adams factory a monopoly with the top six producers of chewing gum in the United States and Canada, selling its new brand called ” Chiclets”.

For a long time, the resin was imported from the Maya land to the United States of America. Unfortunately, during the last decades, most chewing gum companies have switched to synthetic rubber bases, due to their low price and availability. This has almost brought the chewing gum trade to extinction.  However, when you visit Cancun or the Mayan Riviera, don’t forget to try the artisanal chewing gum that is still produced in the region with natural ingredients by authentic Mayan people.

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