Growing up as a first generation Greek-American, one of my most distinct cultural recollections that I remember as a child, is chewing on this gum-like substance that my parents referred to as “masticha.”
Now, excuse me if I might sound like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but, the word, “mastic” comes from the Greek word mastichein, which means, “to grind the teeth,” which in turn, is the definition of the English word, “mastichate.”
I vividly remember the taste of masticha, because of its unique pine or cedar-like flavor, which was unlike anything I had ever tried before. And, it wasn’t actually “gum” in the sense of a substance that children would chomp on, corrupted by artificial additives and preservatives, but rather a whole substance that you could simply chew, without disrupting its cohesive properties. Imagine that: eating something whole, without any preservatives!
As a kid growing up in the United States, my parents, who emigrated from Greece, reluctantly caved in to my addiction for overly-processed sweets, particularly from the candy food group. As a result, I developed into a full-fledged sugar junkie and frequent visitor to the dental office. But even while my main choices of gum consisted of Watermelon Wave Bubblicious or Big League Chew, I ironically developed a liking to the sugarless masticha.
I originally came to try it as my curiosity was provoked by my mother’s baking of a traditional sweet bread, Tsoureki, commonly made for Greek Easter. One of the distinct ingredients added to Tsoureki is none other than, masticha. I remember the exact moment, as I snuck up behind her on my eight-year-old toes, as she was cooking in the kitchen of our two-bedroom apartment in Astoria, where I grew up. I wondered about the crystal-like drops that she was folding into the bread mixture, and so she let me sample the masticha. To this day, I can still recall that memory, because of the unique aromatic flavor that enchanted my senses, a flavor far different from what my young Westernized palate was accustomed to.
As the years passed, I never actually revisited the mystical allure that I once had with masticha. It simply left my mind, probably because I was so distracted by the all-American, cavity-inducing treats that I became addicted to, distorting my impressionable taste buds. However, I was surprised, as an adult, that I would once again become curious in revisiting my long-lost childhood tooth companion, but for altogether different reasons.
Flash forward, I became infected with Lyme disease while on a camping trip in the Catskills, and had no choice but to undergo long-term antibiotic treatment, which left me with digestive problems, killing much of the friendly flora that supports digestion.
Well, much to my surprise, after doing some extensive research, I realized that masticha, or “mastic gum,, as commonly referred to in the English language, specifically for health supplements, is used as a therapeutic substance, ingested for digestive disorders.
According to various scientific studies, it helps with indigestion, bacterial infections, and even has anti-cancer benefits. Supposedly, there are compounds called triterpenoids that may help inhibit cancer cells and tumors from growing.
Mastic gum is also used to treat Helicobacter pylori, (H.pylori), stomach bacteria known to cause ulcers, gastritis, and various digestive and physical disorders.
While traditional medical doctors would routinely prescribe you a round of antibiotics to kill the H.pylori, a naturopathic doctor may suggest mastic gum as part of your treatment protocol, along with other supplements, and also accompanied by a well-balanced diet. More antibiotics would only exacerbate digestive issues.
Now, I don’t remember Bubblicious having all of these amazing health benefits. And the best part is, unlike sugar-laden gums, chewing on masticha actually fights cavities. Due to its bacteria-fighting abilities, it will clean your mouth and freshen your breath.
Aha! Now here is the missing link I thought to myself, as I can hear my grandparents speaking to me from above, and guiding me in the right direction towards good health. I need to find where I can buy myself some masticha to help me with my digestive problems.
So what do I do? I ask some of Greek friends and family for advice on where to locate the elusive masticha. Online sources reveal it is sold at independent sites and Amazon as well, but many of them are coming directly from Greece, and shipping can take quite some time. The best places, in my opinion, to get Greek items are authentic Greek specialty stores.
While I was familiar with Titan Foods in Astoria, I was looking for something a little closer to where I was residing at the moment, which was further east on Long Island. I heard of a place not too far from me, so I go. It’s a small place in Hicksville, NY, by the name of Bakaliko Greek-American Store.
As I walk in, I see a Greek man seated behind the counter, who I believe is the owner. His name is George. He is somewhere in his 60s, seated behind the counter, while a Greek lady close to his age is working by his side. These could be my aunts and uncles. Ahh, it feels like home. A small mom and pop Greek store, where the people speak Greek to you and treat you like you’re family.
So, I asked the seemingly nice fellow if he had any masticha, and he shows me the gum on the counter, but in chiclet form. I realized, however, that this was not pure masticha, but instead commercialized chewing gum with other additives, like sugar and flavorings, and with minimal amounts of masticha.
I nod my head in disapproval.
“The one for cooking?” he asked, in his Greek accent.
I had to think about it, but then remembered that this is the form that my mom used when she cooked with it, and that is exactly what I chewed as a kid, back then. So, yes in fact, this would be what I was looking for.
“Yes, for cooking!” I said.
He then walks to the side where his female associate is, and picks up a white bucket filled with small soufflé cups. He takes one out and hands it to me. I look inside because part of me wonders if it still looks as I remember it, and I see that they are tiny translucent balls, resembling crystal-like pearls. I feel like a kid again, transported to that time in the Queens kitchen, when I was eight-years-old.
“How much?” I asked.
He replied: “7.99.”
“Wow”, I thought to myself. “That is some expensive gum!”
The price of masticha brings me to discuss its intriguing history. As my mother tells me, it is actually limited to grow in just one place, from the trees that grow only on one side of the island of Chios, Greece. But, I can’t solely take my mother’s word on it, although I can in fact vouch for her that she is a trustworthy source. So, I do some research, and find some very fascinating information, to not only support my mother’s wisdom, but add to it, as well.
Legend has it, that after Saint Isidore was killed on Chios, by the Romans during the 3rd century, all the trees on the South side of the island, started weeping in response to his torture and death. It was commanded at that time, during the ruling of the Roman emperor Decius (249-251), that all soldiers were to worship the Roman pagan gods and to offer them sacrifice. Saint Isidore, referred to now as a Holy martyr, not only confessed his faith in Christ, but refused to offer sacrifice to idols, thus refusing to renounce his faith as a Christian. He was subsequently tortured and beheaded. And to this day, it is only those trees on the South side of the island of Chios that can produce masticha.
Understandably, the limited amounts of masticha and the therapeutic need for health stores to sell its extract in capsule form, would drive the price to be higher.
In terms of how to supplement with mastic gum I am not a medical professional, but my advice is based on my own personal treatment, and many other people I have met on health forums that have posted their positive experiences with the substance, in both capsule and resin form.
I advise that if you have digestive problems, such as an ulcer or H.pylori, and can afford to purchase both the resin and the capsules, I would consider using both forms. I have personally tried the two at the same time, so I would say that the gum is great for cleaning the mouth and treating a mild digestive problem, but in the case of something more serious, such as an H.pylori infection, ulcer, serious indigestion, or cancer, I would say that one would need to couple it with capsules.
A bottle of capsules could cost anywhere from 17 dollars to 60 dollars. Vitamin Shoppe sells a few different brands ranging from $22.99 to $51.99. They typically come in 500 mg doses, and should be taken on an empty stomach. Dosing really depends on the individual and the condition, but I would start off slowly, and gradually build up. I personally took 1000mg doses two to three times a day, and found this worked for me.
But, remember that everyone is different, so what works for one may not work for another. Always start off slowly and pay attention to symptoms. Seeing a naturopathic doctor for a condition is always ideal, but if it is not an affordable option, it is definitely possible to do it on your own, as long as you are careful, add one new supplement at a time, and pay attention to symptoms.
And a healthy diet, without refined sugars, flours, or preservatives, would be needed in conjunction with any digestive problem. Therefore, one should not rely solely on a supplement, because it will most likely not be as effective. It is optimal to eat whole foods that are not processed, if you are trying to get your body to heal. Doughnuts and pizza are good examples of what not to eat.
The raw chewing resin can be purchased from a place called Mastihashop in New York City, which also has an online store. They refer to their masticha as “masticha tears.” This store also sells the capsules and a wide assortment of other masticha specialty products like toothpaste, hair products, lotions, etc.
Also, check for local Greek specialty stores in your area for the raw resin, since they would typically sell it, and you could always call in advance and ask for it.
I actually have made a habit out of chewing the resin. I find it to be very refreshing, and I don’t feel bad chewing it since it has no sugar or other chemicals added. I definitely have felt a difference and overall improvement in my digestion since I incorporated it into my treatment, along with the capsules, and I can’t recommend it enough.
While I advise people with certain illnesses and ailments to try masticha, I also recommend it to people without any problems. It can help with oral hygiene, optimize your overall health, and possibly prevent any diseases in the future. Just don’t be surprised if you develop an acquired taste for it.
And I’m not just saying this because I’m Greek!
By Chrysa Pikramenos