Of the many uniquely American inventions that we enjoy, chewing gum holds a special place in the world of Kosher. While it is often maligned, the Kosher issues involved in its production are fascinating. The recent “crisis” involving this masticated confection has shed new light on these concerns and should provide some interesting food for thought. The purpose of this article is to illustrate the need for reliable Kosher certification of chewing gum and to explain the question which has bedeviled consumers of late.
First, a bit of history. Chewing gum, in various forms, has been around since the 1860’s. Rubber has been a much sought after commodity and until the first World War could only be obtained from natural plant latex. The latex from specific trees has certain desirable properties yielding the product to which we refer as rubber. In the search of new sources of latex, attempts were made to make use of chicle, a latex derived from the Central American Sapodilla tree. Although chicle proved unsuitable for the manufacture of conventional rubber, Thomas Adams, Sr. found that he could make “chewing gum” from this product and founded a chewing gum company that bore his name. [Note: the name chiclets is derived from this source of latex.]
Rubber was one of the first strategic raw materials, and Germany was forced to develop the first commercial synthetic rubber production during World War I due to the allied blockade. During World War II the United States, similarly deprived of its access to Asian rubber, undertook a program — second only in scale to the nuclear bomb project — for the development of a synthetic version of this vital raw material. Although perhaps not the “strategic” use originally envisaged, as we will see synthetic rubber finds its way into chewing gum with interesting Jewish law ramifications.
Chewing gum is made in two stages. The first involves the manufacture of the gum base. Gum base is made by mixing and heating some or all of the following ingredients: chicle, natural rubber, synthetic rubber, waxes, plasticizers and emulsifiers. (Bubble gum is formulated with rubber latex in order to give it greater strength.) The gum base, however, is tasteless and too brittle for use as is. The second step involves mixing the gum base (about 25%) with powdered sugar and corn syrup (about 70%), and adding flavorings, glycerin and coloring. The mixture is then extruded into the final gum product. Production of gumballs also involves adding a candy shell to the gum. The need for reliable Kosher certification for gum stems from many ingredient concerns. Plasticizers can be pure lard or tallow and emulsifiers are also often made from animal fats. Flavors and glycerin can also be completely non-Kosher. Even if all of the ingredients in a Kosher gum were acceptable, the equipment on which the product is made requires a Kosherization from non-Kosher productions. Although the gum itself is not swallowed, these fats and flavors migrate from the gum into the mouth.
Much to the delight of many consumers, Kosher certified gum has been around form some time. Great attention is paid to ensure that all fats, emulsifiers and flavors used for Kosher gum meet the most stringent standards of Kosher law. But what could be a problem with synthetic rubber? Isn’t it essentially a petrochemical — a product derived from petroleum? It is on this point that the tale turns.
Certain chemicals used in the production of synthetic rubber are often derived from animal fats. Creating artificial rubber involves suspending and reacting very small bits of monomers (butadiene and styrene) in a soapy aqueous solution. Such an environment is necessary to maintain the solubility of the monomers and allow them to react together (polymerize) to create a rubber polymer. This solution also prevents the latex polymer coagulating until the finishing process. It was noted that certain surfactants such as saponofied stearic and oleic acids were particularly useful for this purpose and therefore routinely incorporated in the production of synthetic rubber. Unfortunately, these fatty aacids are often derived from animal fats which would pose a Kosher certification issue.