Each year, an estimated 175 million Americans chew gum. That’s more than half the US population! But despite how common the habit is, there is still a lot of misinformation out there about gum and its effects on your teeth and body. We discussed ‘the world’s number one habit’ with Dr. Stephen Hill, a dentist in Allen, TX. What we learned may surprise you!
Chewing gum is not a modern invention- in fact, it dates back at least 9, 000 years- to the Neolithic Period, when early ‘gum’ chewers chewed on tree resins or sap to freshen their breath and clean their teeth. But while the reasons people chew gum have largely remained the same over time, gum itself has changed a lot.
Chewing gum as we know it has only been around since 1860 when former President of Mexico General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna came to New York to bring a substance called "chicle" to a man named Thomas Adams for use as a rubber substitute. But while the chicle failed to work for its intended purpose, Adams developed it for use as gum, and thus was born the first commercial gum, a product called Adams New York Chewing Gum. But though today’s gum looks, feels, and even tastes very similar to the first commercial varieties of gum, many improvements have been made since the 1800’s, including more flavors, softer textures, and the invention of the perennial dentist-favorite, sugarless gum.
Unfortunately, despite it being around for centuries, Hill says there’s still a lot of dangerous misunderstanding about how chewing gum affects your body. "First of all," says Hill "some people believe that gum benefits your teeth by ‘scrubbing’ them or removing plaque while you chew. In reality, however, it works slightly differently. While it can remove some plaque or food particles, sugarless gum helps protect your teeth by increasing the flow of saliva in your mouth while you chew. Your saliva neutralizes and then rinses away the acids produced when food is broken down by the plaque bacteria on your teeth." According to Hill, these acids are very dangerous- and if left on the teeth, can eventually break down the tooth enamel, causing tooth decay. The good news is, if you aren’t near a toothbrush, Hill says chewing a stick of sugarless gum for just 20 minutes after eating can help prevent tooth decay. But buyer beware - "not all gums are created equally. The benefits of chewing gum after brushing only apply to sugarless gum. The sugar found in regular gum can actually increase the acid that sugarless gum neutralizes, and leave your mouth worse than not brushing at all."
Hill says when choosing a chewing gum, look for brands that contain Xylitol, which not only increases saliva production but with repeated consumption, it can actually change the type of bacteria present in your mouth – and creates an atmosphere fewer of the bacteria that cause tooth decay can survive. Other artificial sweeteners work well to protect teeth, but none as safely and effectively as Xylitol.
As for that famous myth moms everywhere have been passing along to children for decades? "No, swallowing gum is not dangerous, nor will gum stick around in your stomach for seven years," says Hill. "Your stomach enzymes will take care of the carbohydrates in the gum, and the rest will get flushed out as part of the normal digestion process. But we still recommend you just throw it out when you’re done chewing it."