Gum’s The Word: A Sticky Story

It’s sticky, it’s breath-freshening, and, according to the FDA, it’s technically food—this episode, we’re chewing on the science and history of gum! As it turns out, humans have been harvesting rubbery things to chew just for the chomp of it for thousands of years. But why? We're joined by anthropologists, archaeologists, gum scientists, and etiquette experts on our journey from the ancient birch tar-chewers of Scandinavia to the invention of modern-day, many-flavored bubblegum. How did an exiled Mexican president, a desperate Staten Island inventor, and a soap-selling runaway help gum go from something the Aztecs thought was only fit for children, the elderly, and prostitutes to a multi-billion dollar industry? Why did one country decide to ban gum altogether? And, with its popularity waning, is the gum-chewing bubble about to burst?

Four ancient gums: rough, craggy, dark brown spruce resin; smooth and rounded light yellow mastic; crystalline white frankincense; and gray-brown, rounded pellets of chicle.
— Four ancient gums sampled for this episode (clockwise from top left): spruce resin, mastic, frankincense, and chicle.

Episode Notes

Jennifer Mathews

Jennifer Mathews is a professor of anthropology at Trinity University in Texas, where she studies ancient and historical Maya archaeology, as well as issues around sustainability and tourism. She is the author of Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley.

In the 1920s, the American Chicle Company's fruit-flavored gum enjoyed particular popularity with actresses of stage and screen—at least according to their ad campaigns.

Theis Jensen

Theis Jensen is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen. You can read his PhD research on the DNA of "Lola," the young woman who chewed birch pitch in Denmark 5,700 years ago, in Nature.

Joan Mestres

Joan Mestres, the "Chewing Gum Consultant," has been in the gum industry since 1996. Aspiring Wonkas can learn more about the science of chewing gum design—and, perhaps, create the next great gum with him?—at his website.

Alisa Weinstein

Alisa Weinstein, a close friend of the show, inspired this episode with her graduate thesis from UC Berkeley's School of Journalism. For more of her reporting on the dark side of chewing gum, chew out her thesis: "Fresh Breath and Dirty Streets."


Click here for a transcript of the show. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.