From quicksand to turning the lights on in the backseat of a car, some of the dangers you were told to be wary of growing up turned out to be inconsequential. But a fear of swallowing gum is still ingrained in many people. Whether you heard that ingested gum would clog your plumbing or stay in your stomach for seven years, you knew to avoid it. If you've managed to get this far in life without swallowing a piece of gum, you may ask yourself: How much of the fear is based in urban legend and how much is fact?
The Institute of Human Anatomy recently investigated the old wives' tale in a video shared by Nerdist. According to the educational channel, it isn't a myth that gum is indigestible. Beneath the dyes and flavorings is something called gum base, which is an umbrella term for ingredients like elastomers, waxes, resins, and fillers. These substances are what give gum its rubbery, endlessly chewable consistency.
The mechanisms of digestion in your mouth—a.k.a. your teeth and saliva—can't break down the gum base, and neither can the rest of your digestive tract. Even when subjected to corrosive fluids like hydrochloric acid (stomach acid), pancreatic enzymes, and bile, the gum base won't disintegrate. So if you've ever pictured a wad of chewed-up, pink gum bubblegum sitting in your stomach after being swallowed, that image isn't far from the truth.
The good news is that the legitimacy of the legend ends there. While it is true that gum doesn't get fully digested inside the human body, that doesn't mean it stays there forever. Humans have evolved to process all kinds of indigestible materials, such as fiber. If an item doesn't break down in one part of the digestive system, the body simply moves it along the tract until it's passed out. That means if you swallow your gum, it won't spend any longer inside your body than the indigestible portions of whatever else you ate that day.
This only applies to accidental ingestion, and it's not an excuse to let your gum go down the hatch instead of spitting it out. As is the case with other indigestible materials—like hair—gum can clump together into a bezoar if consumed in large quantities. In that scenario, the myth of gum getting stuck inside you becomes closer to reality.
For a (literally) stomach-churning visual of the route gum takes through your body, check out the video below.