Manufactured chewing gum became widely available to the U.S. population in the mid-19th century. Despite the popularity of gum through the generations, it enjoys a fairly harmless record when it comes to the human digestive tract. If gum did take seven years to digest, medical imaging tests like the MRI and procedures like endoscopy and colonoscopy would routinely turn up instances of old gum hanging around. On the contrary, doctors report that when they do find gum, it’s usually because the patient failed to fast and swallowed gum directly prior to testing.
So what does happen when you swallow gum? It goes the way of just about everything else you swallow. Your swallowing action sends it into your esophagus, traveling down its length until it lands in your stomach. There it mixes with digestive juices before being emptied into your small intestine about 30 to 120 minutes later.
Some ingredients in gum, like the sweeteners, are broken down like other foods. The human digestive system doesn’t possess the digestive enzymes or microbes needed to break down the gum resin, but it’s very good at separating out what it can use and what it can’t.
What can’t be used or broken down by digestive juices from the stomach, liver, pancreas, or intestines is simply carried along the digestive tract until it reaches your colon. Gum, along with other waste products, passes out of your body with your next bowel movement, usually within one to three days of ingestion. It’s the same way your body handles other hard-to-digest foods like popcorn kernels, seeds, and other high-fiber items.
That doesn’t mean gum can’t mess with your insides in rare cases. Chronic gum swallowing can potentially lead to complications. For instance, a 1998 article in the Journal Pediatrics documents the cases of two young children who presented with severe constipation that required medical intervention. In each case, the child was found to have swallowed chewing gum several times per day over a long period of time.
Another case involved a toddler whose gum got stuck in her esophagus when it fused with the coins she swallowed. Children have a tendency to swallow a lot of odd things gum might get attached to, so for this reason, it’s a good idea to discourage gum swallowing in young children. It is generally recommended that you not give gum to children under the age five.
Swallowing gum is also a bad idea if you have gastroparesis, a condition that makes it difficult for the stomach to empty.
All that being said, even in these rare scenarios, you’re going to know you have a problem in fairly short order – the gum is not going to remain in your body for seven years, as the old wives’ tale goes.
The seven year gum rule can be safely relegated to the “If you swallow a watermelon seed, one will grow in your belly” and “If you scrunch up your face, it will freeze that way” category. These are just little lies parents tell their children to keep them from doing things they don’t want them to do… like lying.
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- Humans have been chewing gum, in one form or another, for thousands of years. Prehistoric bark tar containing teeth imprints have been traced back to the Stone Age, and balls of chewed up plant material found in the U.S. date back 2,000 years.
- Ever wonder why there’s no expiration date on chewing gum? Gum base is made out of food-grade polymers, waxes, and softeners for texture. It has a non-reactive nature and low moisture content, which accounts for its super long shelf life. While old gum tends to get brittle and rather tasteless, it remains safe to chew. Because of this, most countries require no expiration date on gum packaging.
- During the Second World War, members of the U.S. military used chewing gum for trade or to give as gifts while stationed in Europe and around the world.
- Pregnant women who suffer from morning sickness sometimes feel worse after taking prenatal vitamins. Sucking on a piece of hard candy or chewing gum after taking vitamins can help ease nausea.
- If you can’t brush your teeth after a meal, chewing sugarless gum can help clean up those wayward particles of food that cause bad breath.
- Worried about your dental enamel? Studies indicate that chewing gum with high levels of xylitol can help prevent cavities and harden the surface of teeth where cavities have begun to form.
- Natural and artificial sweeteners used in sugar-free gum may cause nausea, diarrhea, flatulence, and headaches, if you swallow a lot of it. Another reason to spit it out!
- Even if you don’t swallow your gum, habitual gum chewing may also cause temporomandibular joint syndrome, injury to teeth, or damage to dental work.
- Would you believe there’s such a thing as “gum pollution,” or “gumfitti?” Inappropriately discarded chewing gum sticks to surfaces and is devilishly hard to expunge. Just ask any school maintenance crew. In some cases, chemical solvents are used to clean gum from public and private facilities – at great financial expense, and an unknown cost to the environment.
[Image via Shutterstock]
Expand for References
- Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, True or False: If You Swallow Your Gum, Does it Take Seven Years to Digest
- Duke Health, Myth or Fact: It Takes 7 Years to Digest Gum
- International Chewing Gum Association
- KidsHealth, What Happens to Swallowed Gum?
- Mayo Clinic, Dental Enamel: Ways to Give it a Boost
- Mayo Clinic, Home Remedies May Help Prevent Morning Sickness
- Mayo Clinic, Tips to Limit Bad Breath
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, Your Digestive System and How It Works
- Pediatrics, Chewing Gum Bezoars of the Gastrointestinal Tract
- Scientific American, Fact or Fiction: Chewing Gum Takes Seven Years to Digest