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February 01, 2017

Infrequently Asked Questions: Is swallowing chewing gum bad for you?

Something White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said last summer crept back up for this one

The web collectively raised its eyebrows when an August 2016 interview with White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer resurfaced, in which he casually mentions chewing and swallowing about "two and a half packs" every day of Orbit gum before the clock strikes noon. Notably, he follows that up by saying his doctor assured him "it's no problem."

... Really? 

In search of the gum-swallowing truth, we reached out to Jefferson Health gastroenterologist Christopher Henry for an answer.

Common knowledge says you can't swallow gum because it won't digest. Is that true?

It is true that you cannot digest gum. In addition, frequent gum-chewing causes excessive amounts of air to be swallowed along with saliva, which can eventually lead to abdominal bloating and discomfort. Furthermore, most of the artificial sweeteners used in sugar-free gum can have the same effect as laxatives when taken in excess. 

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What's in the gum that our body can't digest? (Our stomachs digest all sorts of weird things, after all ...)

Digestive enzymes break down the carbohydrate, oil and alcohol ingredients of gum, which comprise much of the flavoring. The rubber base that keeps gum chewy, however, cannot be digested. This, either natural or synthetic resin, moves through the digestive tract intact.

What happens to the gum?

While the body cannot digest the gum, the normal movement or peristalsis of the digestive tract will eventually carry it to the other end and dispose of it in a bowel movement.

What's the worst-case scenario from swallowing gum?

If one were to swallow excess amounts of gum, the indigestible rubber could, in rare instances, combine with other difficult to digest materials and form a larger indigestible mass, known as a bezoar. A bezoar is a term for a mass of contents that blocks the stomach from emptying causing nausea, vomiting, and pain. Ultimately, a bezoar typically requires endoscopic or surgical removal.

Is there a difference between an adult swallowing gum and a kid doing it?

Children differ from adults only in that while the gum remains the same, a child’s stomach is smaller. What might be a harmless amount of swallowed gum in a larger individual could potentially cause a problem in a small child. 

What are some other things we ingest that our bodies don't actually digest or digest all that well?

About 8 percent of every bowel movement consists of indigestible materials. Many plant-based foods are high in fiber, but we do not possess the enzymes to digest all the components, including cellulose, pectin, mucilage, and gum. Insoluble fibers, seeds, and corn add bulk to our stool and aid in the passage of bowel movements but are ultimately not absorbed.

Anything to add?

For his own well-being, I would suggest the new White House press secretary switch to mints.