Something to chew on
By Guardian Unlimited / Science 03:33pm
It is a virtual panacea, apparently, chewing gum. Forget, for a moment, its potential as a catalyst for urban violence (Yes, you, Squelcho, on the tube - get out of my ear!). According to an article in the Guardian today, the gum dealer Wrigley is spending millions on a "research institute" to build upon findings in great, tottering piles of scientific papers propounding the curative powers of its product, writes Simon Busch.
Scientists have already found that, by encouraging the production of spit and thus sluicing acid and bacteria from your mouth, chewing gum will keep your teeth sparkling and douse your halitosis. Other researchers assert that mastication improves your memory: like bovines chewing the cud, gum-chewers exercise their hearts, thus pumping oxygen-rich blood to the forgetful parts of their brains.
The gum movement even avers that regular consumption of Wrigley's gum and related products can put the squeeze on troublesome colons. Bowel patients have apparently been streaming out of hospital after gum treatment, because chewing the substance supposedly tricks the body into thinking it is eating - thereby releasing hormones that awaken the dormant gut.
Speaking of trickery, what is this odd non-food? It is a bit like crisps, another nutrition-chameleon and equally beloved of the British. As Joe Moran pointed out in a recent New Statesman article, crisps - often just reconstituted potato, maize or starch petrified in boiling oil - are so nutritionally flimsy their manufacturers have had to ladle on the semiotics to get them down the gullets of an increasingly health-conscious population.
Hence the advent of posh crisps, with such verbal additives as sea salt and malt vinegar - as opposed to plain old salt and vinegar. And hence the revival of "plain old" as soon as it is abandoned. Moran cites the marketing spiel for Golden Wonder crisps: "We don't want to make nouvelle cuisine. We just want to make ... [g]ood, honest, delicious crisps" - unlike, in other words, those suspicious new snacks probably favoured by the cosmopolitan bourgeoisie.
Chewing gum may be a cure-all, but only by accident. Like crisps, the stuff itself consists of almost nothing. As Wrigley's kids' guide to gum - All the chews that's fit to print - helpfully explains, chewing and bubble gum are actually latex, laced with sweetener and a little artificial flavouring that both quickly melt away in the mouth.
This is a blank slate of a product, upon which all kinds of social meanings can be projected. The news that it is healthful can only hasten the process by which chewing gum goes lifestyle. Expect ads for gym chains, organic food outlets and activity holidays soon to feature models chewing frantically away to lend the products concerned a little inner glow by association.
Indeed, gum is likely to become even more widespread than it is. The implications for not only the pavement but also, as I have suggested before on Guardian Unlimited, social cohesion, seem terrifying, but Wrigley, with its Science Institute, has its foot stuck on the accelerator.
The company says its studies will be carried out in independent laboratories, but it is questionable how independent such research products can ever be. The project is part of a wider trend for cash-starved scientists to stick their hands out, perforce, to corporations for funding to continue their work - any work.
And that does rather raise the question of why the researchers at the Universities of Illinois and Northumbria, whose findings I mention above, investigated chewing gum in the first place - rather than, say, sherbet or ice cream. Something else to chew over.
I hate chewing gum, I can never find a bin when I want to spit it out.