Gum: A Sticky Health Issue

Q: I chew gum to curb my appetite. Are there any health risks?

A: Americans spend more than $80 million a year on chewing gum, which amounts to 200 sticks per person every year. Not only can health problems arise from this habit, but many people view it as unattractive.

Chewing stimulates the salivary glands' production of ptyalin, a digestive enzyme that activates hunger. It also sends a message to the pancreas to secrete more digestive enzymes, which can overwork the pancreas and lead to a deficit of pancreatic enzymes as people get older, resulting in incomplete digestion and, consequently, a number of illnesses. Chewing gum contains paraffin, which, if swallowed, can accumulate as a mass in the intestine, causing malabsorption of nutrients. The act of chewing also can contribute to temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ).

Although a piece of regular gum contains only a half teaspoon of sugar, it is not uncommon for people to chew sticks all day. Bathing the teeth and gum line in sugar nourishes bacteria and causes tooth enamel to dissolve. Sugar also is linked to osteoporosis, arthritis, and other degenerative diseases. Sugarless gums might not be any better because many contain artificial sweeteners and colors, some of which have been associated with bloating, diarrhea, and headaches.

On a positive note, chewing gum briefly after meals does help clean away some food particles; however, flossing seems to be a better habit for this purpose.

"Ask The Expert" is written by Susan Cukiernik, RD, a medical nutrition therapist and life coach. She maintains a private consulting practice specializing in weight and body management in New York City.