Indigestible Gum is an Urban Legend

If this urban myth were true, and that wad of gum you accidentally ingested were bound to sit in your intestines for the next seven years, what else would have to be true?

Swallowing gum won't languish in your intestines for seven years, and therefore poses few problems. However, habitually swallowing gum can be problematic.

We could expect that explorations of people’s intestines would turn up loads of undigested gum. If the myth were true, every colonoscopy for every person who had swallowed gum in the last seven years would turn up pieces of the rubbery snack.

However, as pediatric gastroenterologist David Milov of the Nemours Children’s Clinic in Orlando, Fla., replies:

[Colonoscopies and capsule endoscopy procedures turn up no such evidence] On occasion we’ll see a piece of swallowed gum…but usually it’s not something that’s any more than a week old.

According to the science, nothing that made it into the intestines would reside there for that enormous amount of time, unless it was too large to pass through. For perspective, even swallowed coins like quarters pass through the intestine in a relatively short time. If quarters are passable and thoroughly indigestible, this doesn’t speak well for the gummy myth.

Once the swallowed gum makes it into the intestines, the sugars and sweeteners are digested, but the rubbery base that makes up the chewy part of the gum remains intact and is then passed. As doctor Milov states:

It [the gum] probably passes through slower than most foodstuffs, but eventually the normal housekeeping waves in the digestive tract will sort of push it through, and it will come out pretty unmolested.

All that being said, it still can be dangerous to habitually swallow gum even though it won’t reside in your gut for seven years. Other pieces of food and objects can lodge themselves in the gum and cause problems. An example of this was a little girl who had her esophagus partially blocked by a combination of coins and gum; the gum had fused the coins into a harmful mass.

Four coins stuck in gum lodged in esophagus — of a 1-1/2-year-old girl outlined in the journal Pediatrics (1998)

Also, swallowing a large amount of gum by itself can also create dangerous blockages; a large taffy-like snowball that can perpetuate insufferable constipation.

So don’t fret if you hiccupped and accidentally ingested your chewing gum, you’ll be seeing it again in a lot less than seven years.

[Via Scientific American]

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