Paging Dr. Frischer – Chewing Gum

Today, let’s address a common activity that affects a whopping 59% of all Americans. The USA ranks third in the world (behind Iran and Saudi Arabia) in our consumption of…chewing gum. Many of us don’t think of it as being related to our health – but it certainly can be. Growing up, I was a big baseball fan and baseball card collector, and Willie Mays was a favorite. The Topps Chewing Gum Company presented him with the largest piece of bubble gum ever made. It was the size and weight of 10,000 regular pieces!

But chewing gum is far from a modern activity. The ancient Greeks chewed mastic gum, formed from the resin found in the bark of the mastic tree. Far from Greece, the Mayans chewed chicle-based gum from the sap of the sapodilla tree. It is this chicle-based gum, brought to the United States in the 1860s, which evolved into modern day chewing gum. In fact, until World War II, gum was still made from chicle. After the war, the chicle-bearing trees of Central America could not keep up with demand, and manufacturers turned to synthetic gum bases.

Did you know that…

  • gum chewing produces more saliva, which is a good thing - saliva washes away mouth bacteria, and this helps to fight cavities?
  • chewing gum can give heartburn relief? The saliva stimulated by chewing can neutralize stomach acid found in the esophagus. Swallowing helps to force these fluids back into the stomach, resulting in some relief.
  • chewing gum can stabilize the inner ear and equilibrium? Increased saliva results in more frequent swallowing, which balances the pressure within the ear.
  • gum may help with concentration and recall? Researchers from England found that it helps to stay alert.
  • chewing gum can help reduce stress? Repetitive jaw movements and muscle contractions can alleviate tension and anxiety.
  • swallowed gum will not clog the intestines, but it does take a few days to pass through - in a single piece?
  • chewing gum while cutting onions can help prevent tears?
  • at least one country is not so crazy about gum chewing? Due to vandalism and littering, Singapore banned gum in 1992, although in 2004 it became available for therapeutic purposes. (This change was largely due to heavy lobbying by the William Wrigley Jr. Company.)

Although study results are mixed, gum appears to be helpful for appetite control. The theory is that chewing gum can be a replacement for mindless snacking (or smoking). One study, for example, showed that those who chewed gum three times an hour after lunch ate fewer high-calorie snacks and reported lower feelings of hunger and cravings for sweeter snacks. Other studies, however, show that chewing gum may actually cause an increase in consumption of junk food. While chewing gum may reduce the motivation to eat, gum chewers in these studies ended up eating less nutritious food than did non-gum chewers.

Be cautious if you experience abdominal discomfort from chewing gum. There can be several reasons for this. The increased swallowing can cause excess air to be swallowed, leading to abdominal pain and bloating. Further, gum chewing sends a signal to the body that food is about to enter your stomach, which causes the activation of enzymes and acids for digestion. When no food enters the stomach, the result is bloating, an overproduction of acids, and discomfort. Lastly, some artificial sweeteners contained in gum can cause diarrhea.

On balance, when chewed occasionally, gum is not bad for our health. Still, here are some issues to keep in mind:

  • If you have TMJ or other jaw pain, never chew gum. Any gum at all will make matters worse. TMJ is a painful condition that arises when the joint that connects the jawbone to the skull gets inflamed from repetitive or hard pressure from chewing or from the stress of grinding. TMJ can also lead to headaches, earaches, or toothaches.
  • Chewing gum when you have crowns, bridges, and fillings may lead to more dental problems.
  • Do not chew gum as a replacement for brushing and flossing your teeth.
  • Be particular about your choice of sweeteners. Chewing gum with sugar bathes the teeth in sugar, and increases the chances of developing cavities. There are a number of artificial (or artificially synthesized) sweeteners to choose among. Among them are aspartame, sucralose (Splenda), sorbitol and xylitol. Current research suggests that xylitol is the best choice, although the jury is still out.
  • Read the labels carefully! Some gum contains BHT, a common preservative. BHT has been banned in many countries, however at this time the FDA allows it in food products here. Also note that the gum base that makes gum chewy may contain several food grade raw materials, including rubber, glycerol ester of rosin, paraffin waxes, polyvinyl acetates, talc powder and calcium carbonate. Again, the FDA considers them safe. Other controversial ingredients that may be present in chewing gum’s corn syrup or soy lecithin are GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
  • The best time to chew gum is after a meal. The saliva it helps to produce will help to clean the teeth, and the minty or fruity flavor can sweeten the breath…and maybe even satisfy a sweet tooth.

Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.



Published: April 9, 2015 - Volume 13 - Issue 52