Mastic gum is a truly unique and extraordinary product that can only be found in Greece and has recently attracted a lot of media attention due to its purported benefits. It’s a tear-drop resin that forms on the pistacia lentiscus tree—which grows mainly on the Greek island of Chios—and is harvested for use as a flavouring.
Like Greek mountain tea, this is a Greek product that the rest of the world knows little about, but also one that is quickly spreading thanks to some promising research regarding its effects on the digestive system and its potential cancer-killing properties.
How is it Used?
Mastic gum is used to create the alcoholic drink mastika and is also added to sweets, chewing gum, and non-alcoholic drinks. It is believed to have been consumed as a chewing gum for nearly 2500 years and was praised for its medicinal benefits throughout this time.
Mastic is tapped from the mastic tree, and while this tree does exist outside of Greece, the Greek island of Chios has been granted a protected destination of origin. This means that anything labelled as “mastic” that is sold within the EU must come from Greece, but there are no such restrictions on the sale of mastic that has been produced in Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon.
Health Benefits of Mastic Gum
Before we discuss the health benefits of mastic gum, it’s worth noting that the method of delivery will play a significant role in whether it actually does you any good. Mastika is alcoholic and full of sugar, and these ingredients will likely offset any benefits the mastic would otherwise provide. Mastic chewing gum and other sweets are also high in sugar, but most importantly they don’t contain enough of the resin to provide any notable benefits.
To really benefit from this unique substance, it’s best to consume it in its natural form or even as a tea. It’s not easy to find here in the United Kingdom, but watch this space because you just might see it in the Shelgo Tea store before long.
1. It Can Help to Ease Digestive Issues
The ancient Greeks used mastic gum to treat an array of digestive disorders and it continues to be used for this purpose today. It contains anti-inflammatory compounds that may help reduce digestive pain and discomfort, and it may also help reduce many of the symptoms of IBS. (1)
Mastic gum may also be useful in treating common digestive complaints like indigestion and acid reflux. The act of chewing any gum helps stimulate saliva production, which in turn helps reduce the acidity of the stomach. This, in combination with the anti-inflammatory properties of mastic, may calm the stomach and reduce the buildup of acid.
2. It May Help Reduce Cholesterol
A relatively recent study suggested that mastic could be used to reduce cholesterol levels and improve cardiovascular health. Subjects who consumed mastic gum for a total of eight weeks reported reduced cholesterol and blood sugar levels, with more notable reductions in overweight subjects.
They reported that there were no “detectable side effects” and suggested that mastic gum could be used to reduce high cholesterol and blood sugar in overweight/obese persons, as well as to control blood sugar and cholesterol in otherwise healthy individuals.
3. It May Help Fight Cancer
We have discussed the apparent cancer-killing benefits of many herbs and spices on this site, including dandelion’s link to melanoma and the correlation between sage consumption and low cancer rates. It’s important to take these studies with a pinch of salt, as it’s highly unlikely that a single herb or spice can cure or prevent all cancers in all people, but if nothing else it makes for good reading.
Mastic is another spice that has been researched for its anti-cancerous properties. One study, conducted in 2017, suggested that it could be used to suppress tumour growth in cases of colon cancer, while another arrived at similar results when testing its impact on prostate cancer. (2) (3)
More human studies are needed before any concrete conclusions can be made on this front, but this is another potential cure-all from the home of sideritis.
4. It Can Combat Dental Plaque
Providing it isn’t loaded with sugar, chewing gum is great for reducing oral plaque, but it seems that mastic chewing gum could be even more effective. A randomised, double-blind study from 2003 found that subjects who chewed mastic gum had significantly less plaque than the control group, suggesting that it could be used to promote oral health and reduce the risk of periodontal disease. (6)
A Greek study dating back to 1985 also found mastic gum to be highly effective, reducing oral bacteria by more than 40%. To experience these benefits the mastic needs to be chewed, as mastication releases the antibacterial compounds, working to eradicate bacteria in the mouth much like a mouthwash would.
Other Health Benefits of Mastic Gum
Mastic was also found to be somewhat effective at clearing H. pylori infections, which attack the stomach lining and are responsible for most stomach ulcers. It cleared the infection in around 40% of subjects tested and displayed similar proficiency when used to treat several other common stomach infections, as well as in the treatment of stomach ulcers.
Mastic gum also has a long history of use in the treatment of skin infections, and ancient Greek physician Galen prescribed it as a treatment for bronchitis and other respiratory disorders.
It’s an antiseptic, antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant that has a long history of use and is still exciting doctors and researchers thousands of years after it was first consumed.
Not bad for something most commonly used as a flavouring.
Genuine mastic is produced by small village collectives in Chios, an island that has a population of just 52,000. It is harvested during the summer months when small incisions are made in the bark from which the resin pours. This is left to harden into teardrop shapes before it is collected, washed, and left to dry.
It’s laborious, it’s intensive, and it’s done on a relatively small scale, all of which increases the market price of this spice. As a result, there is a huge black market for “fake mastic”. Most of this is sold outside the EU, with cheap resins like gum arabic used in place of mastic, but these copycat products are also sold by unscrupulous, and sometimes unwitting, dealers within the EU.
What Does it Taste Like?
Mastic has a very unique, pleasant taste. It’s aromatic and warming, but when consumed in its natural form, these flavours are preceded by a surprising bitterness that eventually fades.
It’s hard to describe in detail, as it’s not like anything you will have tasted before, but we like to think of it as a cross between the warmth of cinnamon, the sweetness of vanilla, and the punch of anise.