“If you swallow your gum, it will stay in your stomach for ten years.”
This was the sage warning given by our 7th-grade science teacher, and we took it to heart. Of course, he was also the same guy who told us that the Space Shuttle had to land in California to refuel before continuing on its journey into orbit. He was also of the opinion that the word ”groovy” was still an acceptable adjective, even though the 1960s were a distant reflection in the rearview mirror. We have, therefore, come to look at all of his teachings through the lens of healthy skepticism.
The warning about swallowing gum did not originate with our misguided teacher, however. There’s a good chance you have received similar warnings, along with cautionary tales of how swallowed gum will clog up your plumbing and cause you no end of health problems. Is there really a reason to be concerned?
Chewing gum in one form or another has been around for thousands of years. Prehistoric bark tar containing teeth imprints has been traced back to the Stone Age.
Manufactured chewing gum has been available since the mid-19th century. Typically, the gum base is made out of food-grade polymers, waxes, and softeners for texture. It has a non-reactive nature and low moisture content. Old gum tends to get brittle and rather tasteless (as this author can attest after biting into some fossilized gum retrieved from the vending machine), but it remains safe to chew. For this reason, most countries require no expiration date on gum packaging. Instead, it may carry a “best if used by” date.
More than a couple of people have swallowed gum during humanity’s long love affair with the product. Despite this supposedly hazardous behavior, there aren’t a lot of obituaries that list the cause of death as “clogged colon caused by excessive buildup of chewing gum.”
The good news is that if you happen to swallow your chewing gum, you’re not going to carry it around for years. You probably won’t carry it longer than a couple of days. When you swallow gum, it goes the way of everything else you swallow. It travels down your esophagus and splashes down in the stomach. There, it mixes with digestive juices and anything else you have recently eaten. It gets a good churning for 30-120 minutes and then moves on to your small intestine.
Easily digestible ingredients such as sugar get broken down just like anything else you eat. The gum resin is fairly resistant to the digestive process, but if there is anything in the gum that the body can convert into energy, it will find it and draw it out.
If the body can’t use it or break it down before getting to the end of the small intestine, it passes along to the large intestine, also known as the colon. The large intestine draws water out of the waste until whatever is left over gets to the end of its journey and is unceremoniously expelled (hopefully in a planned visit to the toilet). The undigested gum gets flushed away like the other hard-to-digest foods like kernels of corn, popcorn kernels, seeds, and other high-fiber items.
That’s not to say that swallowing gum should be encouraged. There are rare situations where it can cause problems. A 1998 article in the Journal Pediatrics recounts the story of two young children who received treatment for severe constipation. In each case, the child was found to have swallowed chewing gum several times per day over a long period of time.
There was another case in which a toddler ran into problems when the gum she swallowed joined with coins that she had also gobbled down. The congealed glob got stuck in her esophagus. We think the larger problem was that the toddler thought she was a living piggy bank. It does raise the point, however, that children have a tendency to swallow things that no sane person should.
Pineapple pizza, Buttons, pebbles, and crayons, for example. When you have that kind of behavior, swallowing chewing gum can amplify the problem. For this reason, children under the age of five should not be given gum.
Certain medical conditions, such as gastroparesis, a condition that makes it difficult for the stomach to empty, put gum swallowers at increased health risks.
Despite these cautionary tales, anyone who swallows gum is going to know if there is a problem within one or two days. Even coin-swallowing crumb-crunchers won’t be carrying gum in their stomachs for years.
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