Chewing Gum Can Damage Digestive System, Even If Not Swallowed

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The old saying that it takes seven years to digest chewing gum if you swallow it was proven a myth long ago, per Scientific American. But new research shows that chewing gum does negatively impact the digestive system, even if you don’t swallow it.

The research, published in Nanoimpact, showed that chewing gum containing titanium dioxide nanoparticles — and all foods using this ingredient, of which there are several — significantly impair the small intestine.

Credit: Hernán Piñera/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The scientists from Binghamton University, State University of New York conducted their research in a test tube. They conducted two experiments. One examined what a meal’s worth of the nanoparticles do to the intestine (acute exposure) and the other observed the impact of the nanoparticles on the intestine over the course of three meals in five days (chronic exposure).

“Acute exposure did not have much effect, but chronic exposure diminished the absorptive protections on the surface of intestinal cells called microvilli,” Binghamton reported in a news release. “With fewer microvilli, the intestinal barrier was weakened, metabolism slowed and some nutrients — iron, zinc, and fatty acids, specifically — were more difficult to absorb. Enzyme functions were negatively affected, while inflammation signals increased.”

While the study did not draw any direct conclusions as it relates to these findings, inflammation is a common indicator of disease, slower metabolism leads to weight gain, and poor absorption of nutrients means your body can’t turn food into energy properly.

Related: Pregnant Women Should Stop Eating Licorice, Study Says

“Titanium oxide is a common food additive and people have been eating a lot of it for a long time — don’t worry, it won’t kill you — but we were interested in some of the subtle effects, and we think people should know about them,” Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Gretchen Mahler said in the news release. “There has been previous work on how titanium oxide nanoparticles affects microvilli, but we are looking at much lower concentrations.

This is a sample of titanium dioxide. Credit: Benjah-bmm27/Wikimedia Commons

The researchers noted that titanium dioxide, or titanium oxide, can enter the body through toothpaste. A recent Vital Updates report explained research that showed that the chemical may cause cancer. Researchers conducted an experiment on rats whereby they added titanium oxide to their drinking water for 100 days. Forty percent of the rats developed precancerous growths. Researchers stressed it is uncertain whether titanium dioxide has the same effect on people, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined that titanium dioxide generally is safe.

For the most part, the chemical is used in paints, paper and plastics, per the Binghamton researchers. But it also has been found in chewing gum, candy, toothpaste, chocolate and skimmed milk. It is an active ingredient in mineral-based sunscreens, too.

Credit: Steven Depolo/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A 2012 Arizona State University found that titanium dioxide also can be found in Twinkies and mayonnaise. “Dunkin’ Donuts stopped using powdered sugar with titanium dioxide nanoparticles in 2015 in response to pressure from the advocacy group As You Sow,” Binghamton reported. “To avoid foods rich in titanium dioxide nanoparticles, you should avoid processed foods, especially candy. That is where you see a lot of nanoparticles.”

Related: Common Ingredient in Toothpaste May Cause Cancer

A professional journalist nearly 30 years, David Heitz started his career at the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa before moving to Los Angeles. He led the Glendale News-Press to best small daily newspaper in the state (CNPA) as managing editor and also worked as executive news editor of the Press-Telegram. He worked briefly as deputy news editor of the Detroit News before returning to the Quad-Cities, where he has worked as a freelance medical writer since 2012 for several national websites. He recently purchased his childhood home and says he truly is “living the dream.” 
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