The Ancient Mayans and Aztecs enjoyed chewing chicle (sapodilla tree sap) long before William Wrigley’s Spearmint took the US by the storm in the late 19th century – and American soldiers made it popular in Europe and beyond in World War II.
Affixing your chewed morsel under a park bench is still as impolite now as it ever was, but thankfully, while former US President Obama was chastised not so long ago by Chinese media for enjoying his habit during official functions, other gum stigmas have largely disappeared.
It’s a good thing, too, since, multiple studies have found numerous benefits associated with chewing gum, especially fortified sugar-free varieties.
Chewing gum generates saliva flow, flushing bacteria out of our mouths, preventing them from adhering to teeth and gums, and freshening our breath. Anti-bacterial proteins in saliva help prevent cavities and rebuild and strengthen tooth enamel. Adding xylitol enhances this process; menthol in mint gum reduces throat irritation and binds to nasal linings to inhibit germs and viruses. Really.
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 save families on both sides of the Atlantic several billion dollars per year, by reducing dental visits for cavities.
Could chewing certain kinds of gum even ward off COVID? As crazy as that question sounds, 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.
Other studies have found that natural extracts in gum help host cells resist binding by SARS-CoV-2, and that Vitamin C and zinc boost general immunity and reduce the severity and duration of colds. Chewing gum can also serve as a delivery system for nicotine and caffeine – to help people quit smoking and increase attentiveness, respectively.
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 sick. Research into gum chewing to deliver dietary supplements and ingredients with therapeutic properties is ongoing.
More mundane studies show 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 in recent years. However, the connections are supported by real-life experiences, and a primary school in Bavaria, Germany has encouraged children to chew gum to help them concentrate.
One fascinating 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 mechanisms underlying memory enhancement associated with chewing gum are not known, the researchers said – although other reports suggest that “mastication improves regional cerebral blood flow,” and 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 by a British medical research charity suggests that, for both healthy children and children with respiratory infections, chewing xylitol gum helps prevent severe middle ear infections (acute otitis media) up to age twelve. Chewing probably 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.
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 a chair, table or park bench. In fact, we should be downright happy that we can pop a stick or tablet every day – for taste, health and a plethora of other benefits.