March 27, 2008

Swallowing Gum

Stupid Question ™
July 30, 1998
By John Ruch
© 1998

Q: Is it bad to swallow your gum? Does it really stay in your gut for seven years and cause a blockage like my mom told me?
—Brigit Elizondo

A: No and no. Mom blew it on this one.

This rumor, complete with a fairy tale-style seven-year curse, has been around for ages. It was most recently debunked (rather poorly) in the January issue of “Better Homes and Gardens.”

It got its start in the 1800s, when self-appointed moralists tried to counter the popularity of chewing gum. Rumor was that gum contained horse hooves and glue that would cause the chewer’s intestines to stick together.

Gum is actually 75 percent sugar (or other sweeteners), coloring and flavoring, all of which you end up swallowing quite safely. The chewy part—the gum base—is indigestible and, if swallowed, will pass out of your system in one piece within three days.

While all my medical sources gave me this correct information, their exact reasoning was incorrect. That’s because, like most people, they still believe gum is made from the sap for the Sapodilla tree.

“Better Homes” said gum is a dietary fiber like bran. The Central Ohio Poison Center said gum has a “carbohydrate base.” The web site for the gum company Wrigley said gum is “roughage.”

All this was true before World War II, when gum base was Sapodilla latex (“chicle”) and thus mostly cellulose. But today, probably 10 to 20 percent of the base in a stick of gum is latex (and it’s not even Sapodilla—more likely, the cheaper sorva or jelutong latexes).

The rest is synthetic food-grade plastics refined from crude oil or derived from alcohol. They’re plenty safe—the Food and Drug Administration monitors them—but they’re hardly “roughage.” Synthetic gum is more like Olean than Raisin Bran.

The only digestive trouble you’re like to get from gum is burping from swallowing air while chewing. You might also have trouble with sorbitol, a sweetener in some sugarless gum. An indigestible alcohol, it can ferment in your guts and cause stomach aches or diarrhea.

All that being said, Robert Young’s “The Chewing Gum Book” claims to have found case in which a 2-year-old girl had her intestines plugged by a 3.57-ounce chunk of gum. No name, date or location is given. When I called Young for details, he could only remember finding the story in a medical journal at an Oregon hospital. Searches at Ohio State University’s medical library and Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio couldn’t find the article.

Presuming it’s true, remember that it involved a small belly and a lot of gum, probably swallowed nearly unchewed. As Children’s Hospital’s Dr. Gary A. Smith told me, children under 5 shouldn’t be chewing gum anyway. Smith is an expert on choking—a far bigger gum danger.

While all my sources assure me gum-swallowing is safe for adults, no one recommends doing it, either. After all, it ain’t called “swallowing gum,” is it?

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