When you were a kid, you probably loved chewing gum and blowing bubbles, despite your parents telling you it’s bad for you. Like all other parents, they likely warned you that you should never swallow gum because it would stay in your stomach for seven years and wreak havoc on your health.
But is there any truth to this or is it just something your parents told you to keep you away from chewing gum? Is your body really unable to digest gum? If so, how long does gum stay in your stomach?
In this article, you will find the answers to these and other common questions about chewing gum.
Does Gum Really Stay in Your Body for Seven Years?
According to scientists, the belief that gum stays in your stomach for seven years after you swallow it is just a myth, although a very widespread one. This belief probably dates back to the mid-19th century when the first commercial chewing gum hit the market. It is thought that the manufacturer labeled it as indigestible to distinguish it from edible candy and that this label has remained attached to it ever since.
However, even though this is a myth, there is some truth to the claim that your body can’t digest gum.
On the one hand, your body usually has no problem breaking down and digesting sugars, sweeteners, softeners, preservatives, and some other common chewing gum ingredients. Yet, on the other hand, your body is unable to digest the base of the gum. When they first invented commercial chewing gum, manufacturers used chicle – a natural gum derived from the Manilkara genus of trees native to North America – as the base. In the last few decades, they have replaced it with synthetic polymers.
Both chicle and these polymers are indigestible, but that doesn’t mean that they remain trapped inside your body. After all, fiber is also indigestible, yet it’s an essential component of a healthy diet.
How Does Your Body Digest Gum?
In reality, your body treats the indigestible parts of chewing gum like any other food you eat. After you swallow it, the gum enters your small intestine via the esophagus. Once all the nutrients and other digestible parts have been absorbed, the rest of the gum leaves the small intestine and moves into the colon. From there, it is passed through the rectum and anus the next time you have a bowel movement.
The only way gum could stay in your stomach for seven years would be if you didn’t have a bowel movement during that period, which is next-to-impossible. That seven-year period is likely “borrowed” from Ancient Romans, who believed that the human soul is regenerated every seven years. It is the same belief which inspired the legend that breaking a mirror brings a person seven years of bad luck.
So, if your body is able to process it like regular food, exactly how long does gum stay in your stomach? Scientists say that a swallowed piece of gum will leave your system within a week. The digestion itself might take slightly longer than normal foods due to the presence of indigestible substances, but the digestive tract should push the gum out in no more than seven days.
Is It Safe to Swallow Chewing Gum?
As you can probably assume from the previous answer, accidentally swallowing a small piece of gum shouldn’t be a reason for concern. However, if you swallow a very large piece or several small pieces of gum at once, some problems may occur. In large quantities, the gum you swallow could form a bezoar, a big, stone-like mass that’s trapped inside your gastrointestinal tract. Like the gum itself, this bezoar is indigestible and could thus create a potentially dangerous blockage in your digestive system.
The formation of bezoars made of swallowed chewing gum is highly unusual, though not unheard of.
A report published in a 1998 issue of the journal Pediatrics revealed the details of three such cases.
In one case, a four-year-old girl would receive chewing gum multiple times a day as a reward from her parents. She gradually developed a habit of swallowing one piece of gum just so she could get another one. Over time, this led to the formation of a “multicolored rectal mass” which had to be removed.
The second case concerned another four-year-old, this time a boy, who had been addicted to chewing gum for two years before his parents took him to see the doctor. According to the paper, swallowing seven pieces of gum a day resulted in the formation of a taffy-like blockage in his digestive tract. As in the previous case, the doctors once again had to manually remove this bezoar from his body.
In the third case, an 18-month-old girl, an avid gum lover despite her age, accidentally swallowed gum along with four coins she found nearby. Needless to say, this created an extremely large blockage for someone so small, so doctors had to react quickly. They couldn’t remove the entire mass at once, so they first had to carefully extract one coin before proceeding to remove the other three in one fell swoop.
Again, these are very rare cases, but they illustrate the potential dangers of swallowing too much gum at once. The risk of intestinal blockages is particularly high when large, indigestible objects are swallowed alongside gum. As many young children have a tendency to swallow foreign objects, they are most at risk of complications as a result of swallowing gum.
To Chew or Not to Chew
As a rule, gum doesn’t stay in your stomach for more than a week, so you can chew freely and not worry about accidentally swallowing a piece. However, this doesn’t mean that you should go through a pack of gum a day. While the act of chewing itself has many benefits, including better alertness due to an increased flow of blood to the brain, the sugars and sweeteners in gum aren’t that good for your health.
If chewing gum is your way of coping with stress, you might want to look for other methods as chewing gum – even if it’s sugar-free – might contribute to tooth decay. But if you really must chew, you should always opt for a sugar-free variety that contains xylitol rather than other, less healthy sugar substitutes. Also, make sure to chew in moderation because too much chewing could cause jaw problems.