We’ve all heard at one time or another that if you swallow gum, it’ll sit in your stomach for seven years. This is pure folklore that likely originated from gum being labeled by manufacturers as indigestible.
Though entirely untrue, the myth has proven to be a fairly effective way to keep children — and some adults — from swallowing gum. How and where the seven years originated is also unknown.
Most of the ingredients in chewing gum can be easily broken down by your digestive system. These include sweeteners, flavoring, preservatives, and softeners. It’s the the gum base that’s indigestible.
Traditionally, gum was made using chicle, a sap from the sapodilla tree. As the popularity of gum increased, so did the demand. This led manufacturers to turn to synthetic polymers as a gum base.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows the use of various substances in products as long as they meet certain specifications and limitations. Even with the inclusion of synthetic polymers, gum — like other indigestible foods such as fiber — won’t sit in your stomach for more than a few days.
Your digestive system is built to digest what it can and pass anything that can’t be digested in your stool.
You see it with certain foods you eat, like corn. Corn can’t be digested by your body, so you’ll often see corn shells in your stool after eating it. Swallowing gum, as long as it’s a relatively small piece, can be harmlessly passed the same way.
Here’s how gum is digested:
- You swallow the gum.
- It passes through your esophagus into your small intestine.
- Your small intestine absorbs sugars and nutrients.
- The indigestible portion of the gum moves from the small intestine through the colon.
- It passes through your rectum when you have a bowel movement.
Gum will usually pass through your system completely in less than seven days.
If you swallow gum, rest assured that it won’t take seven years to digest. Your body can safely pass gum within a few days.
Even still, swallowing large amounts of gum isn’t recommended. Research shows that large amounts of gum can lead to intestinal blockages, especially in children. This can happen when a large amount of gum is swallowed at once or when someone frequently swallows gum. Doing so can cause it to clump into a large, indigestible mass, called a bezoar.
People of all ages, especially children, should avoid swallowing gum. Gum can cause choking. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that gum not be given to young children and should only be given to a child once they’re able to understand to not swallow it.
Repeatedly swallowing gum can cause:
- abdominal pain
- chronic constipation
- mouth ulcers
Repeatedly chewing gum can lead to jaw and dental problems.