TASTE TEST: Gum is Not Dessert, and Other Semi-Obvious Truths

"Maybe you’re being unfair, Lesley," I thought to myself. "You’re assuming that apple-pie-flavored sugarfree gum is gross and depressing. But you haven’t walked a mile in apple-pie-flavored sugarfree gum’s shoes."

This morning, the checkout line at Target yielded this horrifying discovery: Extra “Dessert Delights” Sugarfree Gum. There was “apple pie” and “orange creme pop” and “mint chocolate chip.” See, it’s like dessert, except there’s no calories, no texture, no delicious flavor and no food guilt.

My first reaction was to feel offended on behalf of actual dessert. Gum is not dessert. I daresay that even if gum worked very very hard and got into a good college and pulled straight A’s in Dessert Studies, it will never be dessert. Gum serves a purpose, and its purpose is not to be a pie.

Then I felt sad, for the people who buy this stuff when what they really want is ACTUAL DESSERT. I have had dessert, and gum is very different. But maybe you’re being unfair, Lesley, I thought to myself. You’re assuming that apple-pie-flavored sugarfree gum is gross and depressing. But you haven’t walked a mile in apple-pie-flavored sugarfree gum’s shoes.

So I bought all three flavors I saw, and brought them home for a proper taste test.

Given that this gum was hopefully portraying itself as dessert, I thought it best if I treated it as real dessert would be treated. I figured I should have something on hand to cleanse the palate, like you do, between flavors. Water would work, but I also had a bottle of wine that didn’t get consumed on Thanksgiving. Is Moscato a dessert wine? I don’t even know. I’m not really a person who drinks, as evidenced by the fact that I thought this was a totally normal thing to do at 10:30 in the morning.

I threw down a can of Red Bull as a backup beverage, in case I didn’t feel like opening the wine.

Upon opening the packages, I saw that the inside is printed with the legend “Have your dessert and chew it too!” and I got offended all over again.

I started with the mint chocolate chip, which has a picture of ice cream on the package. It tasted like a really old, possibly-dessicated Andes candy. Do grandmas still keep Andes candies in little bowls around the house anymore? Mine did. The gum version was mostly mint with a small retort of distant chocolate, like if chocolate was present somewhere in the building in which the gum is being chewed, but you’re not sure where and it hardly seems worth walking around knocking on doors asking who’s got the chocolate because it’s all muddied up in a sorbitol/aspartame cocktail anyway.

Did it taste like ice cream? No. Not in the least. It has no milkfat, for one thing. For another, IT’S GUM.

After round one, I realized that although I had been joking about the wine before, I totally wasn’t joking now. I took a break to find the corkscrew.

Next up was Orange Creme Pop. I guess “creamsicle” is technically a copyrighted term. But that’s the picture on the package. Astonishingly -- and maybe it was the influence of the wine -- this one wasn’t that bad. Again, it was lacking the all-important “cream” (or “creme,” a term I thought was usually reserved for some kind of external-use-only ointment), but the orange bit was okay, if a little overpowering. I imagine it’s how a chemically-synthesized Future Orange might taste.

If this stuff was not pretending to be dessert, I’d probably chew it on the rare occasions that I’m all “I need a fruity gum that makes me forget what real produce tastes like.” That’s the best compliment I can pay it.

Lastly, I tried the Apple Pie flavor. The actual stick of this gum had an off-putting greenish tinge. I suppose it is meant to imply green apples, but given that the flavor is not “green apples” it mostly gave the impression of moldy pie. The flavor did little to remedy that image. It tasted like a really stale Fig Newton. I honestly couldn’t get it out of my mouth quickly enough.

For all the taste-testing fun, these gums put me off on an intellectual level as much as they do a palatable one. Someone, somewhere had the thought -- what if we took sugarfree gum and pretended it was dessert? “Guilt-free” dessert, at that? Because you don’t actually eat anything, you just chew and chew and chew and eventually spit it out!

However innocently it may have evolved, this gum is uncomfortably reminiscient of the chew-and-spit model of disordered eating. Chewing and spitting is not a new behavior, but given the expansion of pro-anorexia and other pro-eating-disorder communities online over the past several years, it’s apparently becoming more common as various ED approaches to weight loss are more readily transmitted between large numbers of young women.

It is just what it sounds like: a person allows themselves to thoroughly chew a portion of food, usually a dessert or something else high in calories, and then spits the chewed food out without swallowing, thereby avoiding weight gain.

Of course, it doesn’t work. According to Trisha Gura, PhD:

Weight gain, not weight loss is the most likely consequence. The body reacts in unforeseen ways to continual chewing and spitting. Seeing, smelling, hearing about and even the hint of food can trigger the release of insulin. This hormone regulates blood sugar and is a major player in diabetes. Tasting food releases salivary enzymes and also triggers the release of insulin. Excess insulin is a dieter’s worst nightmare, because the hormone stirs appetite, making a person feel hungrier, wanting to chew and spit more. Here lies the addiction to chewing and spitting, which like bingeing and purging can be daunting to try and quit... If a person chews and spits long enough, they can fall into a state of hyper-insulinemia, producing too much insulin, which sets him or her up for insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and eventually diabetes.

Extra’s terrible gum is not going to directly cause eating disorders, I’ll admit that. But the existence of such products inevitably contributes to a culture in which these destructive, harmful behaviors can make a perverse kind of sense. The concept of food as a source of guilt is an ideology that does no one any good -- guilt is a powerful motivator for sure, but it can also be a damaging one.

Ideally, we’d all be making choices for ourselves and our bodies that come from a place of love and care, that aren’t tied up in guilt and self-loathing, but that is unfortunately how many of us come to relate to our most basic physical needs -- like hunger. We understand these needs only as a source of shame.

See, you probably thought this was a post making fun of a silly product, and it is. But like Cat’s recent post on tissue-eating, we can laugh at these ridiculous behaviors even while acknowledging how messed up they are, and thinking about how we both participate in and contribute to the culture that supports them. And how we can stop.