Chewing Gum Conundrum

By Emily Sohn, September/October 2007

Is chewing gum good for your health?

Teachers may outlaw chewing gum in class: it sticks to desks and hair, not to mention that bubble-blowing is a big taboo. But the sticky stuff is gaining ground as a potentially good-for-you treat. Preliminary research suggests that regular chewing can help you remember names, make you thinner, whiten teeth, and more. Just last year, the Wrigley Company formed the Wrigley Science Institute to fund gum studies around the world.

Supporting evidence: In a 2002 study of 75 people out of Northumbria University in England, gum-chewers performed better than nonchewers on a memory test. From a list of 15 words, chewers remembered eight or nine words immediately after hearing them and seven words 25 minutes later. Nonchewers and people who pretended to chew remembered six or seven words immediately and just five words later. How could that be? The simple act of chewing can get your heart pumping significantly more blood to the brain, suggests a small Japanese study. And more blood carries noggin-nourishing oxygen. It’s one theory, anyway.

If you’re trying to lose weight, gum might help with that, too, suggests a 2006 study in the journal Appetite. Of 60 people, those who chewed gum for 15 minutes every hour after eating lunch snacked on 36 fewer calories three hours after the meal and craved fewer sweets than people who didn’t chew gum during the study.

Cons: Much of the work on gum is still in its early stages, and for each purported benefit, different studies turn up opposite results. The repetitive stress of chewing can exacerbate pain in people with jaw problems, such as TMJ. “Chewing gum will never be a suitable replacement for good nutrition and exercise,” says Gayl Canfield, Ph.D., R.D., a dietitian at the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Aventura, Florida.

Our verdict: Some research suggests that chewing sugarless gum can help fight cavities and bad breath. As for other touted properties and added health-boosters, it may be too early to tell. As long as your jaw muscles and pocketbook tolerate the habit, a stick or two a day is fine.