Wednesday, January 12, 2011

TMC Volume 2, Issue 2
Section III: Bubblegum Crisis

Today we speak of gum. That very same gum that we chew, that sticks stubbornly to the bottoms of our shoes, that may become horrifyingly tangled in our hair. Gum!

What exactly is gum? Gum is gum base, the foundation for all of gum’s marvelous gummy properties. It’s what’s responsible for gum’s chewy nature, it’s malleable, yet resilient character, and it’s amazing ability to make and break from numerous tiny pieces to one cohesive unit. Of course, gum base formulations differ from one brand to the next, and each formulation is a trade secret. How else could companies each make claims of ultimate gum superiority? Still, every gum base contains the same basic components:

·         Elastomers – for that spring in your chew
·         Resins – so your gum can come in sticks, bars, and even rolls
·         Waxes – keeping gum easy on your chompers
·         Fats – which allow those waxes to play nice with others
·         Emulsifiers – to keep your gum moist and pleasant
·         Fillers – for that extra texture that some gum-chewers love
·         Antioxidants – as a preservative

On top of this gum base come all the things that the common gumby (i.e. you and me) chews to appreciate, sugar! (or sugar substitutes)

Gums are flavored with both natural and artificial sweeteners according to each manufacturer’s choice. Some gumbys prefer their gums calorie-free – which require sweeteners like acesulfame potassium or aspartame (watch out, phenylketonurics!) – while others love that real sugary high they get from dropping gumballs and bazooka joe. Traditional natural sweeteners for gums like these include cane sugar, Xylitol, and corn syrup. Regardless of your own tastes, each one of these delicious confections goes through a rigorous process that makes them the perfect for that gum base. So pick your poison, because we’re going in hot!

First, the gum base is melted to a roiling 115oC and filtered through a fine mesh screen. This solution is further treated with centrifugation, filtering out any undissolved fragments of gum base as the dissolved supernatant passes through another fine filtering process. This produces a clear, viscous, still-hot gum base that is passed into giant mixing vats where some of those other ingredients (including our sweeteners) are added: powdered sugar for brittleness, glucose for flexibility, food coloring, preservatives, and other flavors. As it comes out the other end, it looks a lot like the infamous Ghostbusters Goop that brought the Statue of Liberty to life in Ghostbusters II. it’s then cooled with cold air and conveyed about on cooling belts. The mixture is then extruded (flattened and squeezed), rolled, and cut into those oh so familiar shapes: sticks, bars, and rolls. Some gums go through further processing, such as added sugary coatings, waxing outerlayers to prevent package sticking, and extra coloring. Then it’s done!

Gum goes through this rigorous process of heating, cooling, and mixing so that when you pop it in your mouth, all you get is a rush of flavor and a satisfying chew. But what happens when you don’t? What happens that heated, cooled, and mixed stick or bar fails to satisfy?

Because the process of creating gum is rather delicate, things can certainly go wrong. The primary culprit is often the gum base. Inadequate filtration, inconsistent heating and cooling times, and even over or under-treatment with simple additives like powdered sugar can create problems with the final product. For example, if one particular mixture of gum base is oversaturated with sugar, the result is a mealy slurry of semi-elastic goop that unsettles in your mouth. In other cases it might be an excess of resin or wax, causing the gum to be so rigid that it’s impossible to chew. Time can also cause gum to deteriorate into its component parts after the protective preservatives have degraded.

Whatever your choice of gum, knowing that they all start basically the same should give you a great appreciation for the great diversity of choices that we have today for gum texture, flavor, and resilience. It’s pretty obvious that gum is still fantastically popular, so your tasty little indigestible sugar sticks aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Despite the occasional gum slurry or sugary wooden plank, the popularity of gum keeps on.

It’ll be a long, long time until we see a bubblegum crisis.