Myth or fact: it takes seven years to digest chewing gum

It can happen on purpose or by accident: One minute you’re chewing happily, then -- gulp! -- that flavorful wad of gum is in your stomach. And, the old adage says, there the gum will remain for the next seven years.

But will it really? That’s not likely, says Duke gastroenterologist Nancy McGreal, MD, who debunked this commonly heard myth.

What Happens to Gum In The Stomach

Most people empty their stomachs 30 to 120 minutes after eating, and that includes gum.

“The gum base is insoluble, just like the fiber base of raw vegetables, corn, popcorn kernels, and seeds,” says McGreal. “Our bodies do not possess digestive enzymes to specifically break down gum base.”

While it will stick readily to your shoe, gum does not stick to your stomach wall or intestinal tract. Instead of hanging around for years, gum simply travels the same path as food and is excreted in stool.

An exception to this would be people with gastroparesis, or paralyzed stomach, which can result in a buildup of food in the stomach.

But even in extreme cases, McGreal says it’s unlikely that gum would stay in the stomach for seven years. “In all the upper endoscopies I have done in both children and adults, I have yet to see a wad of gum lying around in the stomach,” she says.

Is Swallowing Gum Harmful?

Though it is indigestible for humans, gum -- like seeds, nuts, and roughage -- won’t damage the digestive system. However, McGreal cautions, the natural and artificial sweetners in sugar-free gum can cause nausea, diarrhea, and headaches if swallowed in large quantities.

Given the apparent harmlessness of swallowing gum, it’s difficult to say where this myth came from, but a reasonable guess would point a finger at generations of parents trying to teach children not to swallow non-food items.

Written by Staff for Duke Medicine    |    Added February 6, 2014