People have been chewing gum in various forms for thousands of years.
Original gums were made from the sap of trees, such as spruce or Manilkara chicle.
However, most modern chewing gums are made from synthetic rubbers.
This article explores the health benefits and potential risks of chewing gum.
Chewing gum is a soft, rubbery substance that's designed to be chewed but not swallowed.
Recipes can vary between brands, but all chewing gums have the following basic ingredients:
- Gum: The non-digestible, rubbery base used to give gum its chewy quality.
- Resin: Usually added to strengthen gum and hold it together.
- Fillers: Fillers, such as calcium carbonate or talc, are used to give gum texture.
- Preservatives: These are added to extend shelf life. The most popular choice is an organic compound called butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT).
- Softeners: These are used to retain moisture and prevent the gum from hardening. They can include waxes like paraffin or vegetable oils.
- Sweeteners: Popular ones include cane sugar, beet sugar and corn syrup. Sugar-free gums use sugar alcohols like xylitol or artificial sweeteners like aspartame.
- Flavorings: Added to give a desired flavor. They can be natural or synthetic.
Most chewing gum manufacturers keep their exact recipes a secret. They often refer to their specific combination of gum, resin, filler, softeners and antioxidants as their "gum base."
All ingredients used in the processing of chewing gum have to be "food grade" and classified as fit for human consumption.
Bottom Line: Chewing gum is a candy that's designed to be chewed but not swallowed. It's made by mixing a gum base with sweeteners and flavorings.
In general, chewing gum is considered to be safe.
However, some brands of chewing gum contain small amounts of controversial ingredients.
Even in these cases, the amounts are generally much lower than the amounts considered to cause harm.
Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
BHT is an antioxidant that's added to many processed foods as a preservative. It stops food from going bad by preventing fats from becoming rancid.
Overall, there are very few human studies, so its effects on people are relatively unknown.
Titanium dioxide is a common food additive used to whiten products and give them a smooth texture.
At the moment, the amount and type of titanium dioxide people are exposed to in food is generally considered to be safe. Nevertheless, more research is needed to determine the safe consumption limit (9, 10, 11).
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener commonly found in sugar-free foods.
It's highly controversial and has been claimed to cause a range of problems from headaches to obesity to cancer.
However, there's currently no evidence that aspartame causes cancer or weight gain. Evidence for a connection between aspartame and metabolic syndrome or headaches is also weak or nonexistent (12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17).
Overall, consuming amounts of aspartame that are within the daily intake recommendations isn't thought to be harmful (18).
Bottom Line: Chewing gum hasn't been linked to any serious health effects, but ingredients added to some brands of chewing gum are controversial.
In one study, people who chewed gum during tests performed 24% better in short-term memory tests and 36% better in long-term memory tests (24).
Interestingly, some studies have found that chewing gum during tasks could be a bit of a distraction at the start, but they could help you focus for longer periods (25).
Other studies have only found benefits during the first 15–20 minutes of a task (26).
How chewing gum improves memory isn't fully understood. One theory is that this improvement is due to increased blood flow to the brain caused by chewing gum.
In university students, chewing gum for two weeks decreased feelings of stress, particularly in relation to academic workload (30).
The benefits of chewing gum on memory have only been shown to last while you're chewing the gum. However, habitual gum chewers may benefit from feeling more alert and less stressed throughout the day (24, 27, 34).
Bottom Line: Chewing gum could help improve your memory. It has also been linked to reduced feelings of stress.
Chewing gum could be a helpful tool for those trying to lose weight.
This is because it's both sweet and low in calories, giving you a sweet taste without blowing your diet.
One study even found that people who chewed gum were less likely to snack on healthy snacks like fruit. However, this may be because the participants were chewing minty gum before eating, which made the fruit taste bad (42).
In fact, one study found that when participants chewed gum, they burned around 19% more calories than when they didn't chew gum (44).
However, more research is needed to determine if chewing gum leads to a difference in scale weight over the long term.
Bottom Line: Chewing gum could help you cut calories and lose weight. It may also help reduce feelings of hunger and help you eat less, although the results are inconclusive.
Chewing sugar-free gum could help protect your teeth from cavities.
It's better for your teeth than regular, sugar-sweetened gum. This is because sugar feeds the "bad" bacteria in your mouth, damaging your teeth.
However, some sugar-free gums are better than others when it comes to your dental health.
In fact, one study found that chewing xylitol-sweetened gum reduced the amount of bad bacteria in the mouth by up to 75% (48).
Furthermore, chewing gum after a meal increases saliva flow. This helps wash away harmful sugars and food debris, both of which feed bacteria in your mouth (49).
Bottom Line: Chewing sugar-free gum after a meal could help keep your teeth healthy and prevent bad breath.
In addition to the benefits above, chewing gum has been linked to other benefits.
- Prevents ear infections in children: Some studies have suggested that gum containing xylitol could prevent middle ear infections in children (50).
- Helps you quit smoking: Nicotine gum could help people quit smoking (51).
- Helps your gut recover after surgery: Studies have shown that chewing gum after an operation could speed up recovery time (52, 53, 54, 55, 56).
Bottom Line: Chewing gum may help people quit smoking, prevent middle ear infections in children and help your gut return to normal function after surgery.
While chewing gum has some potential benefits, chewing too much gum could cause some unwanted side effects.
Sugar-Free Gums Contain Laxatives and FODMAPs
The sugar alcohols used to sweeten sugar-free gum have a laxative effect when used in large amounts.
This means that chewing lots of sugar-free gum could cause digestive distress and diarrhea (57).
Additionally, all sugar alcohols are FODMAPs, which means that they can cause digestive problems for people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Sugar-Sweetened Gum Is Bad for Your Teeth and Metabolic Health
Chewing gum sweetened with sugar is really bad for your teeth.
This is because sugar is digested by the bad bacteria in your mouth, causing an increase in the amount of plaque on your teeth and tooth decay over time (58).
Chewing Gum Too Often Could Cause Problems With Your Jaw
It's been suggested that constant chewing could lead to a jaw problem called temporomandibular disorder (TMD), which causes pain when you chew.
Chewing Gum Has Been Linked to Headaches
One recent review found a link between regularly chewing gum, migraines and tension headaches in people prone to these conditions (62).
More research is needed to find out if chewing gum actually causes these headaches. However, the researchers concluded that migraine sufferers might want to limit their gum chewing.
Bottom Line: Chewing too much gum could cause problems like jaw pain, headaches, diarrhea and tooth decay. Chewing sugar-free gum can cause digestive symptoms in people with IBS.
If you like chewing gum, it's best to choose a sugar-free gum made with xylitol.
The main exception to this rule is people with IBS. This is because sugar-free gum contains FODMAPs, which can cause digestive problems in people with IBS.
Alternatively, those who can't tolerate FODMAPs should choose a gum sweetened with a low-calorie sweetener such as stevia.
Make sure to read the ingredient list on your gum to make sure it doesn't contain anything you are intolerant to.