… and now I’m wondering if it’s going to take its sweet time moving through my digestive tract. The urban myth is that it takes seven years to digest, which I have never really believed but never really questioned either. I mean if it were true then all those pieces of gum I swallowed during my undergrad should be popping out right about now … Lucky for me someone else was far more interested in the gum digestion question than I was and actually took the time to answer it.
The question and answer were published in a recent Scientific America article, Fact or Fiction?: Chewing gum takes seven years to digest by John Matson who interviewed David Milov a pediatric gastroenterologist. In the article, Dr. Milov is quick to debunk the idea that it takes seven years to digest swallowed gum.
If the legend were true, Milov says, “that would mean that every single person who ever swallowed gum within the last seven years would have evidence of the gum in the digestive tract,” but colonoscopies and capsule endoscopy procedures turn up no such evidence. “On occasion we’ll see a piece of swallowed gum,” he says, “but usually it’s not something that’s any more than a week old.”
A week old? Even that seems like a long time for something organic to persist in the digestive tract, which begs the question of what exactly is gum made of then?
Some of the components, such as sweeteners, are broken down, but the gum’s base is largely indigestible. The Food and Drug Administration defines chewing gum base as a “non-nutritive masticatory substance” that may be composed of any number of natural or synthetic elastomers, or rubber-like materials, as well as plasticizing softeners, resins and preservative antioxidizing agents. The permitted elastomers include natural, tree-derived chicle, a gum chewed by indigenous Central Americans, and the somewhat less traditional butyl rubber, which also finds use in the manufacture of inner tubes.
Wait a minute – all these years I’ve been chewing on something with a similar composition as an inner tube? Ugh … Well it can’t be bad, can it? I mean, if I did happen to swallow the odd piece of gum (and I’m admitting nothing here)…
As Milov and his colleagues wrote in Pediatrics in 1998, chronic gum swallowing—or swallowing gum in conjunction with other indigestibles—can spell trouble.
Uh oh …
The team’s report describes three children suffering from gum-based gastrointestinal blockages, two of whom received gum as positive reinforcement for good behavior and regularly disposed of the treat by swallowing it. In both cases the children became constipated, as the gum snowballed into a substantial “taffylike” mass that required extraction. In the third patient, a girl just a year and a half old, four coins were found lodged in the esophagus, fused into a single blob by a wad of chewing gum.
After reading this I know that I am definitely going to spit my gum out from now on … or at least try to swallow less.
Check out John Matson’s article, Fact or Fiction?: Chewing gum takes seven years to digest, for more information.