How chewing gum became less cool but healthier

Over the summer, the Atlantic ran a story titled "How Chewing Gum Lost Its Cultural Cachet" alongside a devastating subtitle, "It's just not cool anymore." The point of the piece is irrefutable. Compared to the times of Grease, in which smoking cigarettes and chomping away a pack of gum was an unquestionable sign of subversiveness and rebellion, we're in a completely different world. But the push to rout gum from classrooms and school hallways because of popping sounds and its association with class “troublemakers” might have had an underappreciated cost. 

Since the emergence of chewing gum as a pop-culture asset, it has also been heavily studied by a vast array of researchers in the field of neuroscience. A remarkable discovery emerged from a 2002 study that bore the title 'Chewing gum selectively enhances certain facets of memory in individuals without health issues.’

Researchers found that both immediate and delayed word recall functions were improved in test subjects who chewed gum compared to those who had none. Numeric working memory was also improved, meaning test subjects had an easier time recalling larger number sets while chewing, including when they merely pretended to chew.

You might recall similar debates over focus and physical action during the Fidget Spinner craze. Doing something while listening in a classroom or board meeting has been shown to help with focus. That includes chewing. Teachers don’t tend to hand out fidget spinners to students, but teachers in Oregon are reportedly dispensing gum to students during testing. 

The reason why chewing improves memory is because it increases the flow of oxygen to the parts of the brain responsible for attention. The Scientific American looked at a 2012 study in the British Journal of Psychology which found that their test subjects who were gum chewers maintained superior focus during an exercise that involved listening to a 30-minute recording that involved a sequence of numbers. 

Scientific American humorously concludes, "so the next time your mind is wandering in class, maybe try some gum. If it doesn’t help you concentrate you’ll at least be asked to leave." 

As the Atlantic piece points out, American and British schools had both banned chewing gum during class, but with the knowledge we have about the benefits of the practice, that might actually have been ill-advised. “Under experimental conditions, gum was associated with higher alertness regardless of whether performance tasks were completed and altered sustained attention," found this 2017 study. Another one, published in 2015, showed mood improvement and stress relief for those who chewed gum during mentally engaging activities. 

It appears that the methodical act of chewing reduces the salivary cortisol levels, which governs the body's stress response. Chewing sugar-free gum increases saliva flow which helps to wash away bacteria, viruses, and toxins found in the mouth, nasopharynx, and upper gastrointestinal tract. Unlike the socially accepted “uppers' commonly promoted in the workplace, such as coffee, chewing gum keeps working people level-headed without the downside of restless legs, the jitters or nervous jaw clenching. A lot of the benefits are associated with the artificial sweetener used in sugar-free gum, namely xylitol. 

A 2022 study by American researchers used data from over 10,000 pregnant women in Malawi and found that those who chewed sugar-free xylitol-containing chewing gum were 25 percent less likely to experience preterm births. The study also found that the women had better oral health overall, with decreased instances of periodontal disease.

That said, the legacy of chewing gum hasn't moved on since the 1970s. Between rebellious teens and being associated with unhealthy lifestyles and nonchalant and disrespectful attitudes, chewing gum still isn't seen as anything desirable for reasons other than being a sweet treat. Gum was not banned in schools because it was known that sugar-containing gum was detrimental to the teeth of youngsters, but because it was seen as unruly to have your mouth open during class -- even when it didn't involve talking. 

Now that many chewing gum brands have switched to sugar-free alternatives, and the literature on the benefits of gum is as extensive as the flavors gums come in (there is even a bacon-flavored chewing gum), it’s past time we reevaluate the simple act of chewing.

All this stands as a fine example of how a neutral or even healthy activity can be driven from polite society if labeled as an act of youthful rebellion. With consensus now quite strong regarding the mild benefits of chewing gum, we should wonder what really motivated teachers and principals to police gum so strongly in the first place. 

Bill Wirtz is the senior policy analyst at the Consumer Choice Center

Image: Parka Lewis

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