BY PAUL DRIESSEN
~Some frown on it and park benches hate it, but chewing gum has many surprising benefits~
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.
(Image with Chewing Gum courtesy of petersdentalassociates.com)
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.
Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, Paul Driessen, is Senior Policy Advisor for Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, author of “Cracking Big Green”, “Eco-Imperialism: Green Power – Black Death”, and several other recent books. Paul has also served as Legislative Aide to U.S. Senator Bill Armstrong of Colorado and as Policy Analyst for the US Department of the Interior. Driessen received his Bachelor of Arts in geology and field ecology from Lawrence University, his Juris Doctorate from the University of Denver College of Law, and his Accreditation in Public Relations from the Public Relations Society of America. A former member of the Sierra Club and Zero Population Growth, he abandoned their cause when he recognized that the environmental movement had become intolerant in its views, inflexible in its demands, unwilling to recognize our tremendous strides in protecting the environment, and insensitive to the needs of billions of people who lack the food, electricity, safe water, healthcare and other basic necessities that we take for granted.