Chicle, the ancient origins of Mexican chewing gum

Ernesto Mañón
Chicle, the ancient origins of Mexican chewing gum
Chewing is very popular all over the world - Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL

Chicle, the ancient origins of Mexican chewing gum

Ernesto Mañón
Mexico City
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Chewing gum has pre-Columbian origins

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Chewing gum is one of the top candies in Mexico, but have you wondered what is it made of? Which are the ingredients that make it so irresistible?

To begin with, you must know chewing gum exists since pre-Columbian times, but not as we know it nowadays. The way chewing gum has changed and evolved has changed but its soft and sticky consistency has remained, along with a tasty flavor and a nice smell added by the companies that produce it.

Mayan culture is the mother of chewing gum since it was the first to explore the properties of the sapodilla tree, also known as chicle tree, which is the most common tree in the Great Petén area and grows in tropical forests of the Yucatán Peninsula, Belize, and the north of Guatemala.


The appearance of the recently extracted gum is similar to a resin block with only the raw latex, as the ancient Maya used to know it.

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Experts say the Maya used to have extremely clean teeth thanks to chewing natural gum

Currently, chewing gum is made of plastic (its gum base), natural and synthetic resins, sugar, softeners, dye, and natural and artificial flavoring. Science Focus of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) informs that it can also contain calcium carbonate or magnesium silicate, as well as vegetable oil, emulsifiers, and elastomers. It is actually a non-digestible and water-insoluble product.

By the mid-20th century, chewing gum producers stopped using the sap from the sapodilla tree from Mexico’s tropical jungles. They substituted this tree’s latex for polyvinyl acetate and neutral plastic or other polymers as a rubber base since they are much cheaper. However, the sale of sapodilla sap is making a comeback since it is eco-friendly.


Obtaining the sap is an art. Those in charge of this task are known as “chicleros” and own an ancient knowledge to identify the trees to extract the latex. This task has not changed at all; it is the same that was performed by the ancient Maya, according to the Mexican Anthropology magazine.

With a sharp machete, the chicleros make zig-zag cuts from the base of the trunk to its first branches; then, the sap flows through those channels and is collected in a bag.

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The work of these artisans deserves recognition for “a great part of Quintana Roo works in the extraction of gum; over 70 families live from this. Imagine how important it is to them!” says Janeth Conde, the owner of the only Mexican company in charge of taking care of the chicle trees and the natural extraction of the gum.

Despite the challenges of their profession, chicleros at the Mayan area love and respect the ancient tradition.


How is chewing gum made?
When the resin is ready, it is boiled in a pot called ”paila” to remove the moisture; it is constantly stirred until it acquires a chewy consistency and it is then put in wooden molds called “marquetas” to be sold. It is prepared by adding essences, coloring, and flavors to improve its taste and consistency; each company uses different ingredients to give it a personal touch.

By the mid-19th century, an American called James Adams noticed Mexican President Santa Anna was chewing gum and, with a commercial perspective, had the idea to sell small chewing gum pieces with different flavors and sugar.

The first flavors of chewing gum were peppermint and menthol, which came from plant extracts to give a fresh touch to the mouth.


It was a big success and a lot of people began consuming chewing gum, which led different foreign companies to exploit Mexican jungles to obtain the gum.

Nowadays, chewing gum can be found in dozens of different flavors all over the world, but its Mexican origins with the chicleros and the chicle tree will always remain.

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