Document Type

Conference Proceeding



Conference Title

Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS), Global Gateways and Local Connections


New York University, New York, NY

Conference Dates

June 20-24, 2012

Date of Presentation





The human proclivity to chew is as instinctively hard wired as sucking and stays with us throughout our lives. We chew not only daily in the act of eating, but as an outlet for pent up anxiety, a displacement for our aggressive urges, or as a way to simply mitigate boredom. People grind their teeth in sleep or chew the insides of their cheeks, but most peoples through history have also found plant materials to satisfy the urge to chew, often with pharmaceutical or breath-freshening properties. The very word masticate derives from the mastic tree, native to Chios, whose resiny-flavored gum the ancient Greeks chewed and still do to this day. American chicle is the origin of the modern form of chewing gum, and lends its name to the Chiclets brand, though most is now made of synthetic ingredients and rubber. Native Americans in what is now Maine and Canada chewed spruce gum, a source of vitamin C, coincidentally, preventing scurvy. Throughout the world we find comparable substances chewed for their mildly stimulant effects. Coca leaves activated with lime (calcium carbonate) prevent altitude sickness and stave off hunger in the Andes. Qat in Somalia and East Africa, a green leaf chewed communally by men and the source of much controversy among these communities, reputedly has similar mind-altering properties. And no one doubts the nicotine buzz one gets from a plug of chewing tobacco or the refreshing taste of betel nuts, popular in South East Asia, not to mention cola nuts in Africa, slivers of which are shared with visitors. The latter carry a good dose of natural caffeine. This paper will explore the activity of chewing from a psychological, sociological and pharmaceutical perspective. Who chews, why and with whom? And what specific social connotations does it carry? When does it become déclassé? And when do corporations capitalize on specific types of gums–think of sugar free gum or nicorette. The focus of this paper will be upon the handful of the plants most commonly chewed throughout the world and their historical uses. It will question why humans have always had the need to chew and why it is in many ways essential to our happiness and well-being, especially between meals. It will be suggested that the modern meal pattern essentially upsets what was in evolutionary terms useful for us though most of our existence as hunters and gatherers–constant munching on leaves, bark and anything we could get our teeth around. It is only in modern civilized contexts that we end up inventing other more or less socially acceptable forms of chewing–though spitting, the logical adjunct of chewing has often been attacked precisely because it is deemed anti-social.