Remember when you accidentally swallowed your gum in elementary school and your friends convinced you that it'd be in there for seven years? If you've seen the headlines about the new White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, you probably read about his daily gum habit—about 35 pieces of cinnamon-flavored Orbit gum, chewed and swallowed, all before noon.
If you've ever swallowed a piece of gum before, this news probably left an uncomfortable lump (both literally and figuratively) in your throat. While we're all guilty of swallowing every once in a while (either by mistake or on purpose) chewing that much gum that often and swallowing every time seems a little questionable—after all, what is all that gunk going to do to your insides?
The Truth About Swallowing Gum
The good news: It's not going to kill you—or Spicer, for that matter. Those little lumps of gum move through your digestive tract in 12 to 72 hours, just like anything else your body isn't able to break down, says Robynne Chutkan, M.D. a notable gastroenterologist and author of The Bloat Cure. Translation: It comes out in your poop. Even chewing and swallowing piece after piece shouldn't form any sort of blockage in the digestion tract the way it would if you swallowed something large. (Can chewing gum can help you lose weight?)
But that's where the good news stops.
Chewing gum results in the swallowing of a lot of air—a.k.a. aerophagia—which can cause a ton of bloating, abdominal distension (poofy stomach), abdominal discomfort, and burping. "You're basically going to be feeling like the Michelin woman," says Dr. Chutkan. "It can result in you going up two dress sizes in a matter of hours."
And that's just from the air, never mind the stuff that's actually in the gum. Have you ever wondered why it can come in flavors like "sweet mint," "watermelon," "apple pie," and "cinnamon" (looking at you, Spicer) and taste candy-sweet while logging a measly five, one, or zero calories? The answer is "poorly absorbed sugar alcohols"—and while your taste buds might be happy about their existence, your body isn't. All those sugar alcohols (most ingredients that end in "-ol" like sorbitol or glycerol) aren't broken down in the small intestine and end up in the colon, where they get fermented by gut bacteria and produce a tremendous amount of bloating and gas, says Dr. Chutkan. (Try these 10 foods and drinks to combat bloat.)
The type of gum Spicer chomps on all day—cinnamon flavored Orbit—has not one or two but five sugar alcohols. One of them, "sorbitol" is the first thing on the ingredient list, even before "gum base." Yikes. That's a lot of poof-inducing chemicals.
If you're considering dropping your gum habit because of this sugar alcohol revelation, take note; it applies to other low-calorie foods and drinks too. Every wonder why that super low-carb protein bar or so-called "healthy" ice cream make you feel like a human marshmallow? Check the ingredient list; it's probably full of sugar alcohols. (Some new brands, like Simply Gum, are choosing to use real sugar instead, so you don't have that problem. Here's more on sugar vs. sweeteners.)
"I think the other big picture issue is that we really need to think of what we're putting in our digestive tracts, and inside our bodies," says Dr. Chutkan. "Ideally, we should be putting food in there. And gum, I would wager, is not food."
Need a healthy swap? Try chewing on fennel seeds (which "increase the production of stomach acid and really enhance the release of digestive enzymes," says Dr. Chutkan) or fresh or pickled ginger (which "is also very soothing and relaxing to the GI tract" and, when pickled, "is great for the microbiome and really enhances gut bacteria," she says).
What Excessive Gum Chewing Does to Your Mouth and Teeth
Chances are, you spit out your Trident. But you should still think of your mouth as an extension of your digestive tract. "Think of what these substances are doing to the microscopic environment of the mouth—which is not great," says Dr. Chutkan. (That's why your mouth can tell you so much about your health.)
When it comes to flavor choice, cinnamon might seem healthy, but it actually may be worse for your body and mouth. It can cause a burning sensation in the gums and tongue, or even ulcers if consumed in mass quantities, says Dr. Dustin Cohen, dentist at The Practice Beverly Hills.
No matter what type of gum you're chewing, if you're doing it round-the-clock you're going to have some serious effects on your mouth. For one, you're going to give your jaw a serious workout, which could lead to tension in your jaw and headaches. Second, you'll put wear, tear, and "aging" on your teeth, including causing them to become more sensitive to hot/cold temps and pressure. Third, you'll feed cavities. It's like an "all day buffet" for cavity-causing bacteria if you're not chewing sugar-free gum. (Remember: Sugar-free gum is the kind loaded with sugar alcohols... talk about a lose-lose.) And, lastly, it's going to exacerbate any involuntary grinding or jaw clenching you already have going on, says Cohen. (Helloooo, stress headaches.)
The takeaway? As innocent as the stuff might seem, excessive amounts of gum simply aren't great for you. In the grand scheme of things, having this as a vice isn't the end of the world—it's a whole lot better than some alternatives—but if you're popping an extreme amount (you know who you are... and, hi, Spicer), it might be time to blow your last bubble.