Chewing gum addiction: a sticky problem?

I travelled to Greece for a month last summer. A small crate holding 26 packs of Trident Layers weighed down my backpack. By day 23, I had exhausted my stash, only to discover that it’s not available in Greece. I didn’t know what to do; for over two years, I had hardly gone anywhere without Trident Layers. I started tearing up. When I told my friend Samantha Bartlett, she shook her head. “Jenny, we’re in Greece. Who cares about gum, anyway?”

Bartlett isn’t alone in her disdain — my roommates condemn me as an addict.

Gum addiction, and whether or not it exists, is exciting increasing attention in the cyber world. Online support groups purport to help self-proclaimed gum junkies, some of who chew up to eight packs a day. I used to restrict myself to one pack a day, but now I weigh in at just under two packs; about 22 pieces per day. That’s 8 030 pieces yearly. With every pack of Layers weighing in at 33.6 grams, if I keep chewing at this rate, I will have chewed 1 156 kilograms of gum between the ages of 20 to 80 — exceeding the cumulative weight of six adult male gorillas.

Bartlett’s question bothered me. Why was I so gum-obsessed?

According to Dr. David Katz, a columnist for O magazine, gum containing sugar can be mildly addictive. That being said, many popular gum brands in Canada, including Trident, Orbit and Extra, sell several sugar-free products. My gum of choice, Trident Layers, is sugar free.

My dad hates my gum chewing. “Disgusting,” he says.

It’ll rot my teeth and line my stomach forever. This is a common belief, a fear instilled in children. But, like the existence of Santa Clause and the Boogey Man, not everything your parents tell you is true. Gum is referred to as “indigestible” because it resists the body’s attempts to break it down, yet it travels through the digestive system at the same rate — and exits in the same way — as any other swallowed material; it just maintains its properties.

With one myth disproved, I wanted to know if gum could rot my teeth. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), chewing sugarless gum after meals prevents tooth decay because the increased saliva washes away debris that leads to cavities. It’s a dental debris warrior. That being said, the ADA also warns that excessive gum chewing can also lead to jaw problems, including temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ).

TMJ is a jaw-based syndrome that leads to chronic pain in the head and neck, making it painful for the patient to open and close their mouth. The symptoms include inability to chew foods, migraines and hearing loss. For a while, even the slightest twinge in my jaw convinced me I would soon be drinking food through a straw, but since gum chewing isn’t one of the top causes of the disorder, I convinced myself I’d be safe to keep chewing.

I know, I know: addicts always rationalize their behaviour.

Still, chewing gum can’t be that bad; in fact many experts recommend it as a weight-loss tool because it helps curb cravings, and the constant chewing actually burns calories.

In a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic, students were hooked up to machines that measured their energy expenditure. Resting subjects who weren’t chewing gum burned 58 kilocalories per hour, but after chewing sugar-free gum for 12 minutes at a rate of at least 100 chews per minute, their hourly energy expenditure jumped to 70 kilocalories.  The study found chewing gum daily (and frequently) could lead to a weight loss of up to 11 pounds per year.

My gum obsession began when I was trying to lose weight. From age seven to 17, I was persistently “big boned.” In September of Grade 12, I resolved to fit into a size-six prom dress. Considering I was size 14, it wouldn’t be easy. I started going to the gym daily and cut out junk food. But here’s the thing: I was used to eating all things carbohydrate, so quitting cold turkey sucked. When I read in Women’s Health that chewing gum helps control cravings, I had a “hallelujah” moment. I flirted with brands before discovering my one true love — Trident Layers. It was a relationship built to last. On prom night, I crossed the stage in a size-six dress with a broad smile and a stick of gum in my mouth.

But not all gums are marketed at shrinking your size: Suplitol Tongkat Ali Gum for Men promises to do the opposite. This Japanese gum contains a combination of herbs and plant testosterone, which purportedly improves blood flow below the belt. And for women, new on the Japanese market is Bust Up Gum, made with Purearia Mirifica extracts that ostensibly enhance your breasts. Too bad Dubble Bubble was already taken.

But is my gum obsession really a problem? I asked my physician if my incessant gum chewing would damage my health, and she said unless I was suffering from gastrointestinal problems, I’d be fine. This is a concern because sorbitol, a common ingredient in sugar-free gums, is also used as a laxative. Given there is little sorbitol in gum, it rarely causes difficulties for the casual user, but hard cases may spend a lot of time in the bathroom.

There are definite drawbacks to any obsession. I have a stash of over 100 packs of Trident Layers hidden under my bed. I’m not the only one willing to shell out the bucks; in 2007, Canadians spent $449 million on gum. The industry is expanding, with analysts predicting a global market hitting $23 billion by 2017.

I’ve learned to buy in bulk. At Costco, I can get 48 packs of Trident Layers (my monthly supply) for $54.60. Even avoiding gas station and grocery store gum purchases, that’s still over $650 a year.

More than money or stomach pain, what worries me most about my gum fixation is how helpless I feel without it. Last year, I tried breaking the habit, making it five whole days until, during a potluck with friends, I inhaled four pieces of cake. At parties, I usually allow myself a small slice and then pop a fresh piece of gum to distract myself from diving back in. With my molars unoccupied, nothing could stop me. Afterwards, I rushed to my purse for the emergency pack stowed in an outer pocket and took a hit, convinced it was the only thing preventing a return to size 14.

When New Year’s rolled around, my family advised me to quit chewing gum. I considered it for about 10 seconds, but the thought made me so nervous I instinctively reached for a piece.  I don’t actually think that chewing gum is what helps me keep off the weight — I think the healthy eating and daily gym sessions have more to do with it than a stick of gum — but at this point, it is such an ingrained habit that if I had to quit, I wouldn’t know where to start. When it comes to my gum-chewing compulsion, I may just be stuck with it.

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