Amid 40+ years in politics and public policy, I sometimes enjoy forays into other topics, like natural and artificial coral reefs, scuba diving, and medical and scientific advances over the centuries.
As a regular user, I’ve enjoyed the pop culture aspects of chewing gum, but now I’m happily discovering that the health benefits more than offset the opprobrium some still attach to savoring a stick or tablet.
Affixing your chewed morsel to the underside of a park bench is still a definite no-no, and Barack Obama and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte have been chastised in Chinese and Indian media for enjoying their habits during official functions. But other stigmas have largely and thankfully disappeared. Even Emily Post approves, as long as you chew quietly and don’t disturb people around you.
Ancient Mayans and Aztecs enjoyed chewing sapodilla tree sap (chicle). But it wasn’t until 1891, when William Wrigley, Jr. started making Spearmint and Juicy Fruit, that chewing gum really became popular. His brand is still the world’s biggest seller, and it made Mr. Wrigley wealthy enough to build several fine homes, acquire the Chicago Cubs baseball team and have their home stadium renamed for him.
(Full disclosure: My kids and grandkids live a hop, skip and jump from Chicago’s Wrigley Field, and my wife grew up just two miles from the Wrigley Mansion in Phoenix, Arizona.)
Researchers are now finding that gum can enhance our moods, memories, performance … and more.
We all know from experience that chewing gum generates saliva flow, freshens our breath and makes our mouth taste better. But it turns out that proteins in saliva also have anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. Saliva neutralizes acidic plaque, helping to prevent tooth decay and cavities, and actually rebuilds and strengthens tooth enamel. Xylitol in gum enhances this process; menthol in mint gum reduces throat irritation and binds to nasal linings to inhibit germs and viruses. Sugar-free gum is preferable, of course.
The processes are complex, involve flushing bacteria out of the mouth and preventing them from adhering to teeth and soft tissue, and can differ in their effects between men, women and individuals. The European Food Safety Authority and World Dental Federation report similar findings and recommendations. The American Dental Association has given gum chewing its “seal of acceptance,” as “an adjunct to brushing and flossing, but not a substitute for either.” In fact, chewing sugar-free gum could bring billions of dollars in annual savings to US and EU families by reducing dental visits to repair cavities.
Of course, the question of the day is, Could chewing certain kinds of gum ward off COVID? As with nearly all COVID questions, answers are elusive and premature. Some research suggests a citrus‐derived flavonoid (naringenin) might help inhibit COVID‐19 protease and reduce enzyme receptor activity and inflammatory responses, thereby offering “a promising treatment strategy against COVID‐19,” to prevent both infection and transmission of this hugely challenging disease.
Ongoing studies have also found that other natural extracts in gum help host cells resist binding by SARS-CoV-2, and that Vitamin C and zinc boost immunity and reduce the severity and duration of colds. Chewing gum is already used as a delivery system for nicotine and caffeine – to help people quit smoking and increase attentiveness, respectively. Gum with zinc or Vitamin C might be worth trying.
Embedding sufficient anti-Covid medication in gum may seem far-fetched, but boosting our bodies’ immune systems even a little may spell the difference between staying healthy and getting very sick. Medical scientists are also examining the antiviral activity of polyphenols in green and black tea as a prophylaxis and in the treatment of COVID-19, for example, and research into gum chewing as a delivery device for dietary supplements and ingredients with therapeutic properties is ongoing.
Returning to more mundane benefits, studies (here and here for example) have found that chewing gum can improve people’s mood, alertness, focus, productivity, attention spans and performance levels. The gum flavor, rate of chewing and “subjective force of chewing” do not seem to affect these improvements, except perhaps for limited effects on attention – at least under experimental conditions.
Findings are often couched in terms like “suggest that” or “associated with,” as in chewing gum during work “was associated with higher productivity and fewer cognitive problems.” That kind of terminology has become all too common in all too many studies. However, the connections seem to be supported by real-life experiences, including my own, and a primary school in Bavaria, Germany has reportedly encouraged children to chew gum to help them concentrate.
Rather amazingly, a 2002 study tested subjects who chewed gum, mimicked the chewing motion and simply sat there. Its “most striking finding” was “a significant effect on both immediate and delayed word recall” – with more words remembered by both groups of chewers than by those who did not chew gum or pretend to do so. Chewing seemed to improve “the efficiency of working memory operations.”
The researchers commented that “the mechanisms underlying the memory enhancement associated with chewing gum are not known,” but mentioned other reports suggesting that “mastication improves regional cerebral blood flow.” They also said chewing might “promote the release of insulin, which could influence memory via central mechanisms.”
Yet another study found that gum chewing resulted in “significantly better alertness,” reduced anxiety and stress, and “consistently positive effects on mood” during an “acute laboratory stressor.” Of course, if chewing gum improves alertness, focus, productivity, attention spans, memory and performance – it almost has to reduce anxiety and improve moods.
It’s well known that chewing gum helps reduce ear pain during aircraft landings. But evidence collected during a review by a British medical research charity (Cochrane) suggests that, for both healthy children and children with respiratory infections, chewing xylitol gum helps prevent acute otitis media (severe infections of the middle ear) up to age twelve. It’s likely that chewing helps keep middle ear passages open, preventing pressure buildup during landings and infectious buildups in general.
Finally, chewing gum can aid in weight maintenance and loss, by reducing cravings, appetites and the amount of food eaten during a snack. Overall, said one study, chewing gum for at least 45 minutes significantly suppressed people’s appetites and reduced the weight of the snack consumed by 10% compared to not chewing any gum.
Imagine. Something as simple as chewing gum can bring so many benefits. Amazing.
Not surprisingly, several reports concluded by saying “more work is necessary to further delineate these phenomena” – meaning more money is needed for more studies by more research institutions.
However, I’m personally gratified that we can support studies like these. They contribute greatly to our health and welfare and are certainly far more valuable than others that our taxpayer and consumer dollars have supported, such as investigations into ways delicate students might be offended by micro-aggressions –or how manmade global warming could supposedly cause shrinking sheep and birds, animal hibernation to end too soon (or too late), Earth to spin faster (or slower), sharks to become right-handed and unable to hunt, Arctic plants to grow too tall, salmon to lose their ability to detect danger, and countless other ridiculous claims chronicled in online and video libraries of news stories about climate studies we’ve actually funded.
We’re pounded daily with dozens of reasons why we should feel guilty. Chewing gum should not be one of them (unless you stick your wad under your chair or park bench). In fact, we should be downright happy and proud that we can pop a stick or tablet every day – for taste, health and a ton of other benefits.
Counterpoint by Roald Dahl:
Dear friends, we surely all agree
There’s almost nothing worse to see
Than some repulsive little bum
Who’s always chewing chewing gum.
(It’s very near as bad as those
Who sit around and pick the nose).
So please believe us when we say
That chewing gum will never pay;
This sticky habit’s bound to send
The chewer to a sticky end.
Did any of you ever know
A person called Miss Bigelow?
This dreadful woman saw no wrong
In chewing, chewing all day long.
She chewed while bathing in the tub,
She chewed while dancing at her club,
She chewed in church and on the bus;
It really was quite ludicrous!
And when she couldn’t find her gum,
She’d chew up the linoleum,
Or anything that happened near–
A pair of boots, the postman’s ear,
Or other people’s underclothes,
And once she chewed her boy friend’s nose.
She went on chewing till, at last,
Her chewing muscles grew so vast
That from her face her giant chin
Stuck out just like a violin.
For years and years she chewed away,
Consuming fifty packs a day,
Until one summer’s eve, alas,
A horrid business came to pass.
Miss Bigelow went late to bed,
For half an hour she lay and read,
Chewing and chewing all the while
Like some great clockwork crocodile.
At last, she put her gum away
Upon a special little tray,
And settled back and went to sleep–
(She managed this by counting sheep).
But now, how strange! Although she slept,
Those massive jaws of hers still kept
On chewing, chewing through the night,
Even with nothing there to bite.
They were, you see, in such a groove
They positively had to move.
And very grim it was to hear
In pitchy darkness, loud and clear,
This sleeping woman’s great big trap
Opening and shutting, snap–snap–snap!
Faster and faster, chop–chop–chop,
The noise went on, it wouldn’t stop.
Until at last her jaws decide
To pause and open extra wide,
And with the most tremendous chew
They bit the lady’s tongue in two.
Thereafter, just from chewing gum,
Miss Bigelow was always dumb,
And spent her life shut up in some
And that is why we’ll try so hard
To save Miss Violet Beauregard
From suffering an equal fate.
She’s still quite young. It’s not too late,
Provided she survives the cure.
We hope she does. We can’t be sure.
February 2, 2021 at 11:05AM