Chicle – What is Natural Chewing Gum?

In my previous post, I talked about sapodilla (Manilkara zapota), a tropical tree, and its fruit, called chico zapote in Spanish.  This incredible tree is also the source of a natural latex gum, called chicle, from its indigenous Nahuatl name tzictli, extracted since ancient times from the Mayan rainforest (modern day Guatemala, Belize and the Mexican states of Quintana Roo, Campeche and Yucatan); it was used by the Maya and Mexica (Aztec) as a hunger and thirst inhibitor, tooth cleaning agent. and mouth freshener.  

Chicle is the natural gum base that gave origin to American chewing gum, but how did that happen?  Antonio López de Santa Anna is a prominent figure in Mexican history, first for his patriotic and successful military leadership during the Mexican Independence war (1810-1821), his reputation later shrouded by his turbulent and controversial political career, which included several intermittent terms as president.  Although infamous for his actions leading to the loss of close to half of Mexico’s territory to the USA in the 1840s, his involvement in the creation of American chewing gum from Mexican chicle is not that well known.  In the 1850s, while in exile in New York, he tried to raise funds to go back to Mexican soil by selling chicle latex as a replacement for rubber in tires, with the help of American scientist and inventor Thomas Adams; while they had little success, Adams continued to experiment with the substance, and came up with his own version of chewing gum.  In 1870, Adams introduced his first flavoured gum, choosing black licorice.  By the beginning of the twentieth century, the American chicle company, founded by Adams, had developed a product with a hard sugar coating added to small rectangular pieces of gum, becoming the classic Chiclets Adams™.  

In 1892, William Wrigley, Jr. began his chewing gum business in Chicago; a year later, the company of his name developed the iconic Spearmint™ and Juicy Fruit™ flavours.  During the involvement of the US in World War II (1941-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953), Wrigley™ provided its products to the US army as part of their rations; the increased demand, compounded by a shortage of chicle gum supply from Mexico and Central America, resulted in major American companies developing recipes with synthetic polymers.  Nowadays, most chewing gum has none or very little content of chicle gum, and is mainly composed of synthetic, non-degradable polymers, including polyisobutylene (a petroleum-based rubber) and polyvinyl acetate (gasp, aka, white glue!)  

In Mexico, chicle has always played a crucial role as a source of income for many indigenous communities in the Mayan rainforest, and its exploitation secured the financial survival of rebel groups in Quintana Roo for centuries.  By the early 1940s, under Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas, the government repressed the Maya rebels and began regulating the manufacturing of chicle through cooperatives; although historians are divided between positive and negative views of these actions, ultimately, most sapodilla trees were allocated on communally-owned land.  In 2003, Consorcio Chiclero was born as a result of the fusion of cooperative groups in Quintana Roo, as well as the neighbouring state of Campeche; since then, the chicleros have demonstrated that it is possible to establish a sustainable harvest of chicle gum, and their 100% natural chewing gum Chicza™ has reached domestic and international markets across all of North America, Europe and even as far as New Zealand.   

To this day, the method of extraction of chicle gum base has not changed, made by hand, to avoid permanent damage to the trees, which in this way can live hundreds of years; by scoring a zigzag pattern on the bark, the latex flows and is collected in buckets, then boiled to develop the sticky mass that may be moulded into sheets, often mixed with natural sweeteners, such as agave syrup, and flavourings such as berries, mint and cinnamon, amongst others, as illustrated below:

Chicza™ is the only 100% chicle gum in the market, also certified organic, biodegradable, and sustainable; their pretty paper packages nest a crinkly pouch inside, the only part that might not be recyclable/degradable in some places:

I ordered the packets of Chicza™ seen above online, and then purchased a packet of Pür™ and a bag of Mexican Canel’s™ to compare side by side: 

In terms of texture, Chicza™ was hard to chew at first, but after a little while, it became easy and the flavour was very pleasant, not overly sugary.  Pür™ tasted better than gum made with aspartame, but the artificial sweetener aftertaste was definitely still there; it reminded me why I probably stopped chewing gum.  Canel’s™ had a nice, although very sweet taste, and were a little too sticky.  

By looking at the ingredient list, from left to right: Canel’s™, Pür™ and Chicza™, the first ingredient is, respectively: sugar, xylitol, and organic evaporated sugar cane juice, which explains the flavour.  The second ingredient is “gum base” for all, but according to the FDA, synthetic substances or mixes can be listed as “gum base”, and only Chicza™ specifies that it is 100% natural chicle.  The other ingredients in Chicza™ are organic natural flavourings and that is all, while the other two have a longer list, including artificial flavours, carnauba wax, malic acid and preservatives, such as BHT and tocopherols:

These days, as I mentioned,  I find myself not chewing much gum in general, but I think I would choose Chicza™ overall, and once knowing that it is a biodegradable, sustainable treat, it seems like there is no way back to other chewing gum, made with synthetic gum base.  To find suppliers, try a search with the keywords “chicza” and a country.  In Canada:, the US:, Mexico:

NOTE: Glee™ gum advertises as “made with chicle gum”, but their gum base is in fact only partially chicle gum.  I have not tried it, so I cannot say anything about the taste or texture, but it is vegan, non GMO, and contains no synthetic gum, so it is definitely environmentally friendlier than other brands.

Many thanks go to my dear friend Adriana, who brought this 100% natural, 100% Mexican product to my attention a couple of years ago.

7 thoughts on “Chicle – What is Natural Chewing Gum?

  1. In northern New England, where spruce is a dominant tree in the forest, they had spruce gum. this gum was made from the exuded sap of the spruce tree. It has a sort of minty, spruce flavor to it. Sometimes it can be found in tourist shops where the unwary might buy it and try it. In my recollection its primary use was to make a sticky mass that could pull fillings from any tooth.

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  2. What a great topic! I used to chew a lot of gum, though I don’t at all anymore. Never the sugarless type because of the taste. I’m glad to learn about the differences between the natural gum and the synthetics.

    Liked by 1 person

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