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What really happens when you swallow gum?

What really happens when you swallow gum?

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Chewing gum is responsible for one of the most enduring and unfounded food horror stories you’re ever likely to hear. Everyone remembers the day when they were innocently masticating in a playground, when some know-it-all, goodie-two-shoes, wannabe scientist strolled up to them and casually revealed that if gum goes into your stomach, it sits there for years, blocking everything up and probably leading to a premature and painful death. Though plenty of people seem to have accidentally swallowed and are still with us, the warnings still persist. It’s enough to put any chewer on edge.

In fact, such is the strength of unsubstantiated schoolyard pseudoscience, that most people, including yours truly, would struggle to tell you what actually does happen if and when gum ends up in your gut. Given that I have both swallowed gum when I couldn’t spot anywhere sneaky to spit it out, and am not, I hope, currently on death’s door, it seems reasonable to suggest that the reality isn’t as stark as we were all lead to believe. However, as it turns out, the situation is slightly more nuanced than suggesting that swallowing your gum doesn’t do any damage at all.

To understand the potential implications of an accidental swallow, it’s important to grasp exactly what gum is and how it behaves. Humans have actually been chewing gum-like substances for nearly 9,000 years, dating all the way back to ancient Mexico. Archaeologists have discovered that the Mayan civilisation used to chew on a type of tree sap known as “chicle”, which also functioned as a cure for thirst. After World War Two, scientists realised that it was possible to produce an artificial version that could be more effectively flavoured with sugars and other ingredients. Gum, as we know it today, is actually a type of synthetic rubber, not dissimilar to the stuff currently used to manufacture inner tyre tubes and other springy materials.

Chewing gum child Credit: Pixabay/GiselaFotographie

It is this rubber-like quality that gives chewing gum its somewhat alarming reputation. Under ordinary circumstances, the body has several distinct methods of digesting foodstuffs. Materials are initially broken down by teeth and enzymes in the mouth, before entering the stomach, where powerful acids pulverise the material further still.

From there, the soupy slurry that was once your dinner travels through about six metres of small intestine, where nutrients are extracted and the material is broken down even further. Finally, the waste is forced down the large intestine, into the colon and out the other end. It’s both beautiful and very, very disgusting.

Gum, however, does not work this way. Unlike normal food, the synthetic rubber on which it relies is totally indigestible. This makes it resistant to chewing, enzymes, stomach acid and anything else that your body can throw at it. As emergency medical technician and author Rod Brouhard put it in a recent article for Verywell Health, “What goes into the intestines is exactly the same consistency as what went into the esophagus.” Technically, this means that the possibility of a blockage is, on paper, very real. Dramatic though this might sound, under ordinary circumstances it simply means that any swallowed gum passes through the whole system pretty much intact. However, as with anything, there are occasionally some quite severe exceptions.

chewing gum in a bag Credit: Pixabay/athree23

In 1998, an article published in the medical journal “Pediatrics” sought to understand once and for all what, if anything, the risk was for children who regularly swallowed their gum. The report began by pointing out that children had been chewing things for thousands of years, suggesting that our relatively relaxed attitude has more to do with historical precedent rather than an understanding of the risks. However, what they found when they took a closer look was concerning.

The authors reviewed three separate case studies, each referring to a child who had developed serious digestive problems as a result of swallowing gum. In one incident, a child was brought into an emergency department “with drooling, cough, and dysphagia of sudden onset,” with no immediately obvious cause. An x-ray revealed four coins lodged in the esophagus, bound together with swallowed pieces of gum. Another case concerned a child who had a two-year long history of constipation, which was only cured after a ball of gum was manually “taffy-pulled” out of his rectum. The report concluded that, due to the potential health implications, “chewing gum should not be swallowed and not given to children who cannot understand this point.”

As the 1998 article proves, not all of the criticisms of chewing gum are foundless. However, it is important to note that, while the risks are real, we can also be prone to hyperbole. Case in point, the assertion that, once eaten, chewing gum will stay in your system for seven years.

The truth is, unless there are mitigating circumstances as in the examples above, a small amount of gum will pass through your system at the same rate as other food. It will be intact, but it will still pass through. The warnings from 1998 show that, if gum is swallowed excessively, the danger can be very real. But unless you plan on enjoying a meal consisting entirely of Wrigley’s Extra, the threat is likely to be minimal. Nonetheless, maybe we should all spend a little more time looking for somewhere to surreptitiously spit. For five minutes' searching, it’s surely worth avoiding two years of constipation.