Back in elementary school you surely heard that if you swallow gum, it stays in your body for seven years. The good news is that nothing stays in your body for that long. So 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 wouldn't be able to digest a rubber band all that well.
According to the experts at the American Chemical Society, who follow the plight of swallowed gum in their Reactions video series, there are three steps to digestion:
First, chewing. Chewing makes your food smaller as your teeth and saliva break things up into tiny pieces, making them easier to swallow and later digest. But obviously, gum is meant to be chewed so all that munching and gnashing does nothing, so swallowed gum moves into your digestive tract in one solid wad.
Next, as food is pushed into your digestive tract, it's churned around with enzymes in saliva and your digestive juices, letting your body take all the nutrients it needs. In the case of gum, enzymes are able to break down soem of its ingredients — like oils, alcohols and carbohydrates — but the rubber base is untouched.
Finally, the acids in your stomach dissolve everything that's left so it can easily pass through and out the other end. But what's left of your gum is still resistant — like sunflower seeds and corn. It makes it out, a little worse for wear, but somewhat intact, after a couple days.
Here's the video of the entire process:
Can swallowing gum be dangerous?
Swallowing a piece of gum once in a while probably won't hurt you. But if you swallow many pieces 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, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that it’s best to steer your little ones clear of chewing gum 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, 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, you may want to stick with sugar-free because 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.
Editor's note: This file was originally published in September 2012 and has been updated with new information.