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Chew it Over: Gum's Unlikely Journey from Tree Sap to ADA-Approval

Chew it Over: Gum's Unlikely Journey from Tree Sap to ADA-Approval

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Since the beginning of man’s relationship with chewing gum, he has managed to find many uses for the rubbery stuff, from frivolous enjoyment to practical panacea. Yet, it was not until the 21st century that chewing gum was allowed to take its place alongside toothbrushes, toothpastes, and floss as a reputable oral hygiene aid. Nearly 160 years after two brothers from Maine manufactured and sold the first commercial chewing gum, the American Dental Association finally bestowed its coveted Seal of Acceptance on three varieties of Wrigley’s chewing gum.

This is not the first time in American history that gum has been promoted as something more than what may well be the most habit-forming candy known to man. In the late 1800s, Dr. Edward E. Beeman added pepsin powder to chicle and called it a cure for indigestion and heartburn; in 1899, a New York druggist marketed his chewy confection as a method of maintaining good dental hygiene; and in the early 1920s, Prohibition violators masked the whiff of moonshine with clove gum.

Centuries before that, ancient Greeks used mastiche, a chewy tree resin, to clean their teeth while the Maya Indians of Central America discovered the joys of chewing a sugary tree substance we now know as chicle. Apparently, even early man developed the chewing habit, as evidenced by the discovery of a lump of masticated tree resin that archeologists determined to be a prehistoric blob of chewing gum.

Fast forward to the present day, when anyone who had ever been ordered to “spit out that gum” finally had good reason to cheer. On September 25, 2007, Wrigley revealed that their sugarless gum products Orbit®, Eclipse®, and Extra® had received the American Dental Association Seal of Acceptance, much to the delight of gum-lovers, consumer advocates, and dentists alike.

Not surprisingly, the ADA’s action provoked some controversy. Some have questioned the ADA’s interest in the matter, asserting that the organization, which has been around for over 125 years, might have been biased in its decision.

According to Clifford W. Whall, Ph.D., director of the Seal program, any company can submit a product for such ADA approval, providing that there is strong evidence of the product’s oral health benefits. In addition to various other criteria, the ADA requires manufacturers to “supply objective data from clinical and/or laboratory studies that support the product's safety, effectiveness and promotional claims” and “conduct clinical trials as needed in strict compliance with ADA guidelines and procedures.” The fact that these studies and trials cost a significant amount of money leads some consumer groups to contend that only wealthy, established companies can ever hope to secure the coveted ADA seal, regardless of the effectiveness of their products.

What would prehistoric man think if he knew controversy erupted over what was, in his day, a simple blob of tree sap?

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