If you went to elementary school (and I’m making a broad assumption that you went to elementary school), you must have heard that if you swallow gum, it stays in your body for seven years. Well, I got news for you — nothing stays in your body for that long. (Well, maybe the belly fat you earned when you had your third child, but besides that, pretty much nothing.) So I know you’re curious — if it doesn’t stay in your body, what happens to it?

Turns out that your system doesn’t digest chewing gum very well. That’s because of what chewing gum is made of. Before World War II, chewing gum was made of chicle, a latex sap from the sapodilla tree. In the middle of the century though, scientists came up with artificial ways to re-create the rubbery substance. That substance, mixed with artificial flavors and sweeteners, is the chewing gum we know today. So why can’t we digest it? For the same reason that we can’t digest a rubber band all that well. (I doubt a rubber band would be as tasty as a stick of Doublemint though.)

So what exactly happened to that piece of gum you accidentally swallowed when you slammed on your brakes in the car last week? Well, most likely it moved through your digestive tract with the help of peristalsis (an involuntary muscle contraction — and subsequent relaxation — that moves your food through the digestive tract in waves), but never actually got broken down. Instead, that piece of gum ended up completely intact (albeit a little worse for wear) in the toilet.

Occasionally swallowing a piece of chewing gum is not considered to be harmful. But if you swallow many pieces of chewing gum in a short amount of time, or swallow a particularly large wad of gum at once, it can be harmful, potentially causing a blockage in your digestive tract.

Because of this possibility, it’s best to steer your little ones clear of chewing gum until they’re at least 5, or until they’re old enough to understand how not to swallow gum and why it’s important not to do so.

Interesting side note: Chewing gum was banned in Singapore back in 1992 because people were spitting it out on streets or sticking it on walls in public places to dispose of it instead of throwing it out. As I’m sure you know, chewing gum is incredibly difficult to clean off of a surface (as my last pair of Keds can attest), so the government decided to ban it. (The ban was since revised to allow medicinal gum, but they still make it pretty hard to score a pack.)

If you are a gum-chewer (or for some reason, want your children to be), you may want to stick with sugar-free (as long as it doesn’t contain harmful chemical substitutes either — like aspartame), since the sugar in regular gum can cause cavities and tooth decay. And if you do happen to swallow a piece, rest easy. It’s bound to come out on the other end just a few days (not seven years) later.

— Chanie

You can submit a question to Mother Nature, and one of our experts will track down the answer. Plus: Visit our advice archives to see if your question has already been tackled.

MNN tease photo: Shutterstock