chewing gum

If you’re one of numerous people who have swallowed a piece of chewing gum by accident, one question likely popped into your head right after the startling sensation: how long will the gum stay there? There’s a common notion that the gum will sit in your stomach for seven years after being swallowed.

However, this notion isn’t true. According to Simon Travis, a professor of clinical gastroenterology at the University of Oxford in the UK, it’s an old wives’ tale. He said he has no clue where the myth came from, but can only imagine that it was suggested because someone wanted to stop their children from chewing gum. Travis added that swallowing gum is only detrimental to the body if done in excess, which is very rare. He shared that swallowing three or more pieces of gum per day would be considered excessive.

He explained that if you swallow chewing gum, it goes through the stomach, into the intestine, and pass out unchanged at the other end. There are some cases of chewing gum getting lodged in the intestines of infants and children if they’ve swallowed a lot, causing an obstruction. However, Travis said he hasn’t seen anything like that in over 30 years of specialist gastro practice. Dr. Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics, has written numerous books debunking myths about the body. He agreed that swallowing gum won’t do you any harm, but he doesn’t actively encourage it.

Dr. Carroll said gum has no nutritional value and is made out of gum-based flavoring, sweeteners, and scents. Gum base is a mixture of elastomers, fats, resins, waxes, and emulsifiers, so he wouldn’t call it healthy.

The history of chewing gum.

According to Jennifer Mathews, a professor of anthropology in San Antonio, Texas, before gum was commercialized and sold in packets like we see today, ancient people used it to fight off thirst and hunger. Mathews also wrote “Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, From the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley.” She said that Mayans chewed on a substance called chicle, from the sapodilla tree found in Central America and southern Mexico.

According to Mathews, chicle is a natural latex that derives from the Chico sapote tree or sapodilla tree. If you cut into a chico sapote tree, the latex starts oozing out as a form of protection, forming a barrier to protect the tree. You can pull the ooze off the tree and start chewing on it. Similarly, the Pima Indians in what is now the United States chewed on spruce tree sap for years before European settlers picked up on the habit, and it became commercialized.

In 1848, a New Englander named John B. Curtis started selling gum commercially. His Maine Pure Spruce Gum, with its natural spruce taste, became extremely popular. Eventually, he started making gum with paraffin wax instead of sap and flavoring it with ingredients like licorice, sugar, and vanilla. Curtis held a monopoly on the gum industry for years until a man named Thomas Adams entered the picture. Adams was a New Jersey inventor who found himself in an unlikely business relationship with 11-time Mexican president General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in the 1870s during his exile to Staten Island.

Determined to return to power, the general asked Adams to help him in his efforts to vulcanize chicle, with the aim of making a rubber replacement to compete with companies like Goodyear. If he could pull it off, the exiled general hoped the money would help fund an army for him to win back the presidency, but it didn’t work. After trial and error, Santa Anna gave up and returned to Mexico, where he eventually returned to power. However, Adams, who recognized the general’s habit of chewing chicle, decided to change his approach. In his kitchen, Adamas boiled down the chicle, dried it, rolled it, cut it into sticks, and took it to the local drugstore where customers, primarily children, purchased the wax gum, and it sold out within hours.

By 1871, Adams patented a machine for making chewing gum sticks, and, according to Mathews, by the 1880s, he was selling five tons of gum per day. One of his most popular gums was Black Jack, which remained prevalent until the 1970s, and you can still find it in some retro candy stores today. Eventually, he added tutti-frutti and natural spearmint flavors. Adams’ success brought many imitators. In 1889, Franklin V. Canning, a New York pharmacist, introduced Dentyne with the promise of preventing cavities. One year later, Chiclets, a peppermint-flavored candy-coated gum, hit the shelves. Eventually, Adam’s company bought Chiclets, which became one of its most popular brands.

When to worry about swallowing gum.

Unless you’ve swallowed a lot of gum or you’re in pain, Carroll and Travis said there’s no need to go to the doctor if you accidentally swallowed a piece whole. Carroll described it as a theoretical problem, where you theoretically could get something big enough in a small child to cause a blockage, but it’s not something that regular people should worry about.

However, for those with issues with their gastrointestinal tract, which is a series of organs joined together in a long, twisting tube from the mouth to the anus, swallowing gum could cause problems. Academic gastroenterologist Dr. Leila Kia said if things are open and there’s no blockage or narrowing, then things will go through just fine. However, if there’s narrowing or you have severe inflammation for whatever reason, then eating something like gum can cause issues.

According to Dr. Kia, Crohn’s disease is a common reason for inflammation in the GI tract and can cause it to narrow. She said doctors would typically recommend a low-residue diet for Crohn’s patients, which avoids specific foods like raw vegetables and fruit, seeds, nuts, popcorn, and gum. Some types of surgeries and cancers can cause that narrowing. If you were to swallow many pieces of gum, that could be an issue if you have a small stomach or your anatomy’s been rearranged, which is what happens when you have gastric surgery.

In short, the theory of swallowed gum sitting in your stomach for 7 years is a myth and an old wives’ tale. For most people, swallowing gum is harmless and has no adverse effects. However, if you have gastrointestinal issues, it could cause issues.

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