As hard as we may try to ensure that we ingest the best foods and drinks for our bodies, things can happen. (Here’s looking at you, yesterday’s jitter-inducing third latte.) But sometimes, such scenarios are purely accidental. For instance, while I was chewing gum the other day, I mistakenly swallowed it down as I sipped on a glass of water. It had been years since I’d done so, and I immediately stopped in my tracks.
Childhood rumors about gum staying in your system for seven years (or forever?) immediately came to mind. This got me to thinking: What happens when you swallow gum… and is it even digestible? To decipher fact from fiction, I reached out to Peyton Berookim, MD, MA, FACG, AGAF, a double board-certified gastroenterologist at the Gastroenterology Institute of Southern California.
What happens when you swallow gum?
For starters, the GI doctor notes that gum is in a different category from most foods and even candy. “Gum is a very particular concoction of elements that are intended to make it indigestible,” Dr. Berookim says. Its constituents are exactly why you can chew it for hours on end but it still stays intact.
“Think about it: If it doesn’t easily disintegrate in your mouth after repeatedly chomping down on it and being exposed to digestive enzymes, such as amylase, then it won’t get completely broken down in the rest of your digestive system either,” Dr. Berookim continues. So yes—gum isn’t compatible with the digestive system.
Does swallowed gum ever get fully digested?
Recalling the childhood rumor of gum staying in your system for seven years after swallowing it, Dr. Berookim says this is more of a myth than anything… with one caveat.
“Our digestive enzymes can easily break down all of gum’s components except the gum base itself,” Dr. Berookim says. “Gum base is composed of an insoluble gum base—resins, humectants, elastomers, emulsifiers, fillers, waxes, antioxidants, and softeners—sweeteners, and flavoring agents.” FYI, he notes that gum base is exactly what makes it sticky and stretchy.
But just because we can’t digest gum fully doesn’t mean it’ll stay in our systems forever. On this point, Dr. Berookim says we can liken gum base to other items we routinely ingest that we can’t break down—such as insoluble fiber, watermelon seeds, and popcorn kernels. “[These] are not digestible, but still follow along the path of the digestive system and make their way out of our bodies,” he shares. (Cue the collective sigh of relief.)
How “bad” is it to swallow gum?
While swallowing gum isn’t ideal, Dr. Berookim says that doing so by accident is unlikely to cause digestive distress or any palpable damage. “Some people report an immediate stomach ache after ingesting their gum, [but] whether this is just a psychological response or a real physiologic effect is not completely known,” he says.
With that in mind, Dr. Berookim mentions that experiencing adverse effects after swallowing gum are more likely if you ingest a large mouthful of it. “Too much gum swallowed at once can clump together to form a larger clump also known as a bezoar, which is too large to move normally through the digestive tract and can potentially cause an obstruction.”
Children in particular require more caution in this regard. “Since the diameter of the small intestine in a child is smaller, the risk of obstruction increases,” Dr. Berookim says. In sum, he advises spitting out your gum once it loses its flavor or you’re done chewing it—but it’s not really worth stressing over if you gulp it down by mistake.