By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Folklore tells you that swallowed gum sticks around in your stomach for seven years. It even winds its way around your heart, according to many. It’s a terrifying “fact” that often scares children from even picking up a stick of gum. But is it true? Chewing gum is not designed to be swallowed, but is swallowing gum harmful? How exactly does swallowed gum affect your health?
Chewing Gum Throughout History
You can trace the use of chewing gum back to the times of Ancient Greece. The Ancient Greeks chewed on gum made from the resin of the mastic tree. American Indians chewed on the sap of spruce trees made into a resin.
And in 1948 John B. Curtis sold the first commercially produced gum under the name of “The State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum.”
Later, paraffin wax replaced the spruce resin and chewing gum was patented in 1869.
What is Gum Made From?
Today chewing gum is made from a gum base, a blend of resins, fillers and polymers, artificial sweeteners like sorbitol and aspartame, softeners like vegetable oil, flavorings, and colorings.
Is Swallowing Gum Ever Really Dangerous?
Yes, swallowing gum can cause serious health problems and, in rare cases, even death.
But these problems and deaths are rare. Despite the fact that chewing gum is not designed to be swallowed, there are few recorded dangers associated with swallowing a single piece of gum.
However, problems can occur with children eating gum, and when you persistently swallow large amounts of gum.
We looked at the real health dangers of swallowed gum to give you the following facts, not the myths:
1. Swallowed Gum is a Choking Hazard
Probably the most concrete danger of swallowed gum is the choking hazard it poses – particularly in young children.
Choking on gum is rare, but every five days a child in the United States chokes to death while eating and the American Academy of Pediatrics says round or cylindrical hard candies and gum pose a high choking risk to children.
2. Swallowed Gum Can Cause Death by Mineral Starvation
In the UK in 2011 a teenager’s death has been blamed on her habit of swallowing up to 14 sticks of gum every day.
Several large lumps of gum were found in Samantha Jenkins’ stomach and pathologists believe that the blockages prevented minerals from being absorbed. Jenkins died when mineral levels in her body dropped fatally low.
3. Possible Carcinogens in Swallowed Gum?
Some people claim that the vinyl acetate (acetic acid ethenyl ester) used in some brands of gum can cause cancer – whether the gum is chewed or swallowed.
The Canadian government initially labeled the vinyl acetate ingredient as a “potentially high hazard substance” in 2008.
But in 2009, in the Summary of Public Comments Received on the Government of Canada's Draft Screening Assessment Report and Risk Management Scope on Bisphenol A, the Canadian government later concluded that vinyl acetate was not harmful to human health.
4. Chewing Gum and Other Objects Form a Blockage
A non-digestible lump in the stomach is called a "bezoar", and this can occur when people swallow lots of gum over a long period of time.
A 2004 study from the Bnai Zion Medical Center, Haifa, Israel tells how an 18-year-old Israeli woman was admitted to hospital with a stomach literally jammed with undigested chewing gum.
She had apparently been swallowing at least five pieces a day and suffered from stomach pains.
5. Swallowed Gum and Constipation
Children can suffer from constipation and gastroenterological problems when they swallow gum, according to a 1998 study from the Nemours Children's Clinic, Orlando.
In this paper a four-year-old boy who had suffered two years of constipation was found to have "always swallowed his gum after chewing five to seven pieces each day", after he was given the gum for good behavior.
6. Calories from Swallowed Gum
Should you worry about the calories when you swallow or chew gum? Probably not.
Gum has up to 15 calories per piece but the act of chewing burns just as many, and when you swallow gum you don’t ingest any calories. But keep the gum sugar-free to prevent cavities.
7. Does Swallowed Gum Stay in Your Stomach?
To address the main myth surrounding swallowed gum – it does not usually stay in your stomach.
Sure, the gum base is not digestible but your digestive system moves it out of your body through your intestines until it eventually ends up in the toilet bowl.
Even though gum is sticky, it cannot normally grab onto the walls of the intestine. Unless you eat significant quantities of gum every day you are unlikely to have any remain in your stomach following the digestive process.