During the past year, Canadians spent approximately $500 million on chewing gum. Based on the average price of a pack of gum, that translates to 4 billion pieces of gum, or 120 pieces per year for every Canadian! Of course, not everyone chews gum – and that means that the ‘hard core’ gum chewers are consuming much more than that.
But is gum chewing good or bad for you? Although various ‘experts’ will argue passionately for one side or the other, it turns out that the answer lies somewhere in between.
First, let us examine the negatives. Traditional sugar-containing gums like Double Bubble have been shown to cause dental decay. Sugarless gum has addressed the issue of cavities, but not without other potential health effects of sugar substitutes. Some sugarless gums are sweetened with aspartame, an artificial sweetener which has been linked with no less than 92 different health concerns! Although it is advisable to limit one’s intake of aspartame, I would be more concerned about aspartame in soft drinks, since the quantity of aspartame is far greater in a diet soft drink than in a piece of sugarless gum.
More recently, an increasing number of brands of sugarless gum are sweetened with natural sweeteners such as xylitol, mannitol and sorbitol. These naturally-occurring sweeteners do not cause tooth decay (xylitol has actually been proven to prevent tooth decay), and they are not absorbed into the body – instead they pass through the digestive system in the same way that fibre does. However, xylitol consumption is also associated with intestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome. In other words, there is no perfect additive for making gum taste good.
The act of chewing gum results in more swallowing of air, which is an irritant to the stomach and intestines. There are also claims that the act of chewing stimulates the release of stomach acid and enzymes (as if the act of chewing ‘tricks’ the stomach to believe that food is coming), which increases hyperacidity and reflux problems.
Most recently, in the January 2014 issue of Pediatric Neurology, researchers identified a strong correlation between gum chewing and migraine and tension headaches in both children and teenagers. Most alarming in the study was the number of hours per day that some adolescents and teens are chewing gum – many of the study participants were chewing gum for more than six hours per day. When you consider that we spend less than an hour per day actually chewing our food, excessive hours of gum chewing could certainly cause overuse and strain on the jaw joints and give rise to headaches.
There are, of course, benefits to chewing gum as well. Chewing gum stimulates saliva flow, which is beneficial in a number of ways. Saliva helps to prevent cavities by bathing teeth in minerals, by neutralizing acid in our diets and by fighting bacteria that cause decay. Increased salivary flow is also beneficial for people who suffer with dry mouth.
Therapeutic gums such as nicotine gum for smoking cessation have proven benefits, and are certainly the lesser of two evils. Although somewhat controversial, chewing gum may also play a role as an appetite suppressant in weight management programs.
Tallying up the pros and cons can be an interesting and challenging task. It seems that the reasonable compromise would be to choose a sugarless gum sweetened with a natural sweetener, and to minimize quantity and time spent on gum chewing. If you like the idea of freshening your breath when on the run, chew gum for only one or two minutes, and definitely not for hours during the course of a day. And for your information, spend a minute reading the ingredients on a package of gum. That will probably help in limiting your consumption as well!
Dr. Allan Katchky is a dentist who practises in the East End