Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
6 Jul

Dear Mark: Phenylketonurics and Chewing Gum

Dear Mark,

I’ve gone Primal and am loving it! But now you’ve got me questioning everything – even my beloved gum. I’m an avid chewer of the stuff and had never thought twice about. I took a closer look recently and saw all kinds of things I didn’t recognize including a warning about phenylketonurics. What are they and what about all the artificial sweeteners? Would Grok chew gum? If so, what are the healthiest options?

Thanks to Esther for this week’s question. First, let’s look at the phenylketonurics issue. The warning you mention is particularly intended for that small portion of the population with phenylketonuria (PKU), a recessive genetic disorder. People with PKU are deficient in an enzyme needed to break down and metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine. As a result, phenylalanine can build up and reach toxic levels in these individuals. People with the PKU disorder must avoid or severely limit food and food products containing phenylalanine. Although most phenylalanine comes from regular food, it’s also a component of the artificial sweetener aspartame (a.k.a. Nutrasweet). More on this in a minute….

As to gum itself and potential benefits… If you’re looking to lose weight or quit smoking, chewing gum can possibly give you an edge with its physical preoccupation. As for oral health, the saliva produced and the chewing action itself can help reduce bacteria and acids on the teeth. (The American Dental Association suggests sugarless gum for these benefits, but even sugared gum can achieve the same thing if chewed after the sugar itself is gone.) Research has shown that chewing gum can increase the volume and acidity of gastric juice in the stomach and is often recommended post-meal for those with acid reflux symptoms. Finally, chewing gum increases blood flow to the brain, which may help explain why some people feel more alert after partaking.

But what are the downsides? And what would Grok have to say on this subject? As to Grok’s perspective on this, experts believe that prehistoric peoples chewed on leaves or tree sap, and some evidence even points to the existence of a kind of “Ur”-gum itself. But Grok’s gum is a far cry from today’s Bubble Yum or Dentyne Ice. The problem with gum isn’t the idea behind it but the ingredients, particularly sweeteners. Traditional sugared gum? You’re giving yourself a regular serving of sugar and the subsequent (albeit small) insulin spike every time you pop a stick. Artificially sweetened varieties? Even if you don’t have PKU, there’s some concern about aspartame as an excitotoxin that may overstimulate the brain’s nerve cells. (Some people report experiencing migraines in response to the sweetener.) And women who are pregnant are advised against using aspartame altogether. As we’ve mentioned before, it’s wise to ask yourself whether the artificially sweetened product (in this case, gum) offers benefits you couldn’t easily get from an unsweetened alternative, particularly if it’s something you will use on a regular basis. A single stick with 6-8 mg. of aspartame now and then might not have any real impact on you, but a pack a day habit of artificially sweetened gum can add up.

What about the alternatives? Most “natural” brands (including Peelu) that we found are flavored with sugar alcohol like xylitol. Although it might be preferable in terms of the insulin reaction, I won’t let it off the hook entirely, particularly for children or women who are pregnant or nursing. As for those people who swear off any borderline sweetener and instead bite the bullet for natural stuff, a stick’s sugar content adds up to about 2 grams. As a once-in-a-while fix for garlic breath, it’s not the worst thing you could choose, but I’d never recommend it for regular use. And for you experimenters out there, you can always make your own. Glee Gum offers a chicle-based kit you can order online. Although they include confectioner’s sugar and corn syrup packets in the kit, their site suggests that many customers concoct their own formula substitutes. I imagine there are other, cheaper sources for chicle itself.

Finally, if simple breath freshening is what you’re up for, I’d suggest stashing an extra toothbrush and toothpaste in your bag or an herb-based mouth wash/spray. (Miessence has some good ones that the Environmental Working Group rates well.) Drinking plain water can help rinse away acids and avoid the dry mouth that exacerbates breath issues. Finally, go Grok style and chew on some natural herbs like parsley, rosemary or cardamom, or brew up some mint or anise tea instead of reaching for the gum pack.

Shoot me a line and let me know what you think. Have your own recipes or alternatives? Thanks again for all your questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I can’t stand gum.

    I always find chewing endlessly without eating makes me hungry, then annoyed.

    Christoph Dollis wrote on July 6th, 2009
    • Christoph, I always have had the exact same reaction as you!

      Aaron Blaisdell wrote on July 9th, 2009
  2. Thanks Esther and thanks Mark! Brilliant question that I have been asking myself for a few weeks now. Thank you for the good evaluation of pro and con chewing gum. I sometimes find that when I am on the road and I do some IF chewing gum can help you in that half hour when the craving for food is at its peak.
    Personally I think one of the best alternatives is simply some good old jerky. It gives you something to chew on and is simply delicious!

    Tobi wrote on July 6th, 2009
  3. The parsley on the plate at Italian restaurants isn’t just there for looks (or at least it wasn’t at one time) – parsley does a pretty good job of wiping out garlic mouth, at least in the short term. Just watch out for the green bits between your teeth!

    gcb wrote on July 6th, 2009
  4. I quit with gum some time ago for inner ear problems. Can’t see myself chewing on tea leaves though.

    Greg at Live Fit wrote on July 6th, 2009
  5. Often times when I know I’m in one of those “emotional eating” moods I consciously grab a piece of gum, rather than say… a cookie, or piece of cake, or ice cream, or even just a piece of toast. It goes back to the balance Mark was talking about – 1 piece of gum that I chew for a couple hours (again, I do it more for the sensation of chewing something than the taste) is, I hope, better than what I would have normally reached for…

    Jane wrote on July 6th, 2009
  6. most people who chew gum should hear themselves. one of my pet peeves is that loud lip smacking chewing sound. I can be very rude to someone who is chewing loudly in my presence. I’d rather smell cigarette smoke than listen to someone chew gum – yecht!

    Nancy wrote on July 6th, 2009
    • I’d rather breath free and be annoyed than have someone smoking around me.

      Marsha wrote on July 31st, 2011
    • I can’t believe someone would promote smoking on a site devoted to better health! It is possible to distract yourself from the “noise” of someone chewing gum but holding your breath doesn’t work for very long if some idiot is smoking nearby.

      Michael wrote on November 14th, 2011
  7. Research has also shown that chewing in general can stimulate the production of digestive enzymes. With gum, the enzymes are not needed, and for regular gum chewers, this could be a bad thing by causing the enzyme production of the pancreas to decline over time.

    I use Miessence mouthwash. It’s expensive and I don’t like it as much as other “natural” mouthwashes, I like the peace of mind that it gives me.

    Vin - NaturalBias wrote on July 6th, 2009
    • Alternatively, gum has been a lifesaver for me because my body doesn’t produce enough digestive enzymes and stomach acid. I have a feeling that chewing things, be it sticks, leaves or gums in ancient cultures was for more productive reasons like cleaning the teeth, fixing digestive issues or dealing with bad breath.

      Liz wrote on July 15th, 2010
  8. The gum that I buy online is Xponent. While it does have Xylitol, it is from birch trees, not corn. Here are the list of ingredients:
    Xylitol, gum base, gum arabic, natural flavors, lecitin, glycerol, glazing agent”beeswax)

    Whille not perfect, it works for me when I have the urge to chew gum. :)

    Helen wrote on July 6th, 2009
    • really were do u find that?

      horselover wrote on December 26th, 2009
  9. Alternative to gum:
    Thursday Plantation “Tea Tree Australian Chewing Sticks”

    Work great for freshening the breath and leave your mouth feeling nice and clean.

    I am in no way associated with the company that makes them, I just go through an awful lot of them!

    Dean wrote on July 6th, 2009
  10. Never been a fan of gum, even as a kid. Good post.

    Dream wrote on July 6th, 2009
  11. Stop using garlic powder or garlic salt and stick to the real stuff and you WON’T have the breath problem.

    With what I now put in my body, a few sticks of gum is no big deal.

    pjnoir wrote on July 6th, 2009
  12. My only problem with sugarless gum, or excessive amounts of Xylitol and other sweeteners, is that it causes excess “gas.” Particularly the kind that is not pleasant to be around either. Is this a typical reaction, or a symptom of an allergy of some sort to sugarfree products?

    HawaiiGuy wrote on July 6th, 2009
  13. I used to live on Wrigley’s Extra chewing gum, combined with Pepsi Max soft drink. Healthy, huh? It was my way of keeping my mouth and stomach occupied whenever I couldn’t or didn’t want to feel hungry (and therefore eat).

    Now I have cut out both, except for a very rare treat.

    When I have breath issues, I tend to drink tea, since the only toothpaste I can find contains sorbitol! I have looked at every pack in the supermarket, and even in organic and health food stores… What’s the deal, Australia?? Can anyone outside of Oz recommend a herbal or otherwise sweetener-free toothpaste I should import?

    Jess wrote on July 6th, 2009
    • MAKE YOUR OWN TOOTH POWDER. Thoroughly mix 3 parts baking soda (the cleanser and sweetener) with part salt (the abrasive) and funnel the compound into a short small-mouthed container such as a pop or beer bottle. You’ll find that the creation has a satisfying, different taste and leaves your mouth feeling very fresh and soothed. If you’d like, add a few drops of peppermint or wintergreen oil to the concoction – or mix the home “brew” half-and-half with a commercial tooth powder – to give the dentifrice a more pleasant flavor. More Household Ingredients | Formula Submissions.

      MAKE YOUR OWN TOOTHPASTE. This formula is simply an extension of the tooth powder recipe: To each half cup of homemade powder, add 3 teaspoons of glycerin, 10-20 drops of flavoring (peppermint, wintergreen, anise, cinnamon or whatever) and 1 drop of food coloring. Mix the ingredients thoroughly in a bowl and add just enough water to make the concoction “tooth-pastey”. Spoon the substance into a small refillable plastic squeeze bottle or any container that dispenses easily and won’t leak. VoilÁ! Toothpaste!

      Marsha wrote on July 31st, 2011
      • ooops… tooth powder edit.. one part salt.

        Marsha wrote on July 31st, 2011
  14. Love that Peelu gum! And Spry, another xylitol based gum. I stick to a piece after each meal with no problems.

    Your body does need to adjust to xylitol, though.

    Lauren B wrote on July 7th, 2009
  15. I think this would be filed under “Absolute last thing you should worry about.” True, Grok would not chew gum. It’s not primal. But this is such a SMALL piece of ‘food’ that you aren’t even totally eating. Full sugar, sugar free… doesn’t matter unless you’re downing a pack a day. It’s an insignificant amount of calories. TWO sugar carbs? People are really worried about that? I’ll keep my gum, and the girl I may otherwise have scared off with dragon breath. To my it’s a hygiene thing, like deodorant and daily showers. Not primal, but necessary in modern society. Especially if you are single and would like to continue having an active dating life. :)

    Fixed Gear wrote on July 7th, 2009
  16. When in india I experienced ‘Pan masala’ which is supplied like we supply chocolate mints.

    Its a mixture of seeds, primarily fennel seeds and you chew it to freshen up your mouth.

    I have never made my own but I’m sure its very easy.

    alex wrote on July 7th, 2009
    • Ah yes, that stuff! I’ve had it in (local) Indian restaurants as well. As far as I know, like gum, you’re not supposed to swallow it? Which made it a bit tricky to dispose of in the restaurant (I think I kept it in my mouth until I could discreetly spit it into a street gutter).

      I do wonder what’s in it, though. Just because it’s foreign doesn’t mean it’s unprocessed/organic. Obviously it’s mostly seeds and spices, but IIRC there were some red or silver bits in it too, which could have been tiny sugar balls (like cake decoration sprinkles, except with mint flavour), and also a kind of very fine powder, which could have been anything (anise sugar, artificial sweetener, additives or maybe just a pinch of corn starch). Plus there was *something* in it, that had a slight hint of a “soapy” after taste, but for all I know that might be some spice unknown to me, perfectly organic and innocent.

      Anyway it was hard to see in the dim lighting of a restaurant, thanks for reminding me of the stuff I’ll have to ask a friend who lived part of her life in India :)

      … or check if the local Asian supermarket has it and read the ingredients (if they’re listed in a language I can read …)

      Frank Barleyhopper wrote on September 24th, 2012
  17. Jess,
    I recently realized the xylitol in my Tom’s of Maine toothpaste was causing problems of the gaseous kind. They just started adding xylitol a few years ago, but it took me awhile to correlate the use xylotil with the onset of gastrointestinal symptoms. Recently I read that some have problems with xylitol, and I did find a toothpaste without artificial sweeteners – flavored with peppermint oil. It is nature’s gate “Creme de peppermint natural toothpaste with baking soda and peppermint oil”

    apparently they have different flavors, but i have not tried them. since switching the gas problem has gone away. it is amazing how a tiny amount of an additive can have such a big effect on the body, particularly since toothpaste is not swallowed……

    gionta wrote on July 7th, 2009
    • Fantastic, thank you!! I had heard of Toms, so I’m glad you’ve ruled it out for me before I went ahead and imported it! Will definitely look at Nature’s Gate :)

      Jess wrote on July 7th, 2009
  18. Totally agree with Fixed Gear. The 3 calories I get out of 1 piece of Orbit is not enough for me to be worried about it. At most, I have 2 pieces a day, so 6 calories then (1g sugar alcohol each).

    Not gonna sweat the little (read: tiny) things…..

    Krist wrote on July 7th, 2009
  19. It’s nice to have a healthier option for gum. Thanks, I might try that one day.

    I used to chew a lot of sugar free gum and it was a problem. Several packs a day and then I quit cold turkey. It kept me from eating too much but it made my belly swell with gas no matter which kind I tried. They are putting more chems into this stuff all the time. The worst for me was Wrigley’s sugar free Juicy Fruit. I wanted more and more and more of it. I felt crazy on it!

    I had hope for Xylitol but it screwed with my intestines so I gave up.

    Primal Smile wrote on July 7th, 2009
  20. I had an almost OCD problem with gum. I’d chew a stick and immediately pop in a second because the first felt too small. I’d keep going until I had a huge wad in my mouth that made my jaw ache. So I’d get rid of it and start again. I was getting through over 40 pieces a day at work – though I never chewed (or felt the need) when I was home.

    Intially my problems were restricted to some jaw ache and abdominal bloating (sorbitol is not just a laxative – it also gives you painful and unsociable gas!) but after a while I started getting really ill. I’m not sure if it was just the gum, or also the intense training I was doing (it was when I was flirting rather seriously with Crossfit) but I started to break down. My menstrual cycle became irregular, I felt spaced out and weird a lot. Sometimes I got palpitations. The doctors found nothing wrong despite numerous tests. I then began to come down with a succession of viruses – cold, flu, bronchitis, some 24 hour vomiting thing…

    I researched the side effects of aspartame on the ‘net and it made for some very scary reading. I went cold turkey on the gum and also ditched my daily Diet Cokes. I’ve not been ill since.

    Indiscreet wrote on July 8th, 2009
    • how were you able to quit cold turkey i admire that so much. i’m where you were, just mindlessly popping 2 pieces in everytime and chewing until flavor is gone, then 2 more…….
      today, i’ve but back a little and am chewing tea tree sticks. ugh!

      tracer43 wrote on September 14th, 2009
  21. The one thing I’m having a hell of a time kicking.

    The funny thing is, I didn’t chew much gum at all until after I was almost fully primal.

    Grok wrote on July 8th, 2009
  22. The Inuit chew whale and seal blubber. Sounds quite Primal to me. Don’t chew the gum, chew the fat.

    Aaron Blaisdell wrote on July 9th, 2009
  23. i’ve found chewing gum after meals helps me with my acid reflux. thanks for the post i’ll be back in the future

    thankful acid reflux sufferer wrote on July 19th, 2009
    • I like to chew gum so may jaws can move, since going primal, I don’t eat as much, therefore my jaws aren’t used to all that non-chewing, and need something. But I have been weening that too. Going on 4 months of primal and loving it. Now I’m looking for fitted dress shirts as opposed to tents Thanks again Mark. Your primal student, Dan.

      Dan Lange wrote on January 19th, 2010
    • If chewing gum helps with your acid reflux, then you may want to look into hypochlorydria. (sp?) It’s not a production of too much acid, it’s too little.

      Liz wrote on July 15th, 2010
  24. Thanks for the writeup, Mark.

    Like a couple of other readers, I’m a fan of Spry’s gum range.
    It uses xylitol which although a sugar alcohol, has 70% less cals than table sugar & also many dental benefits.
    I’m a big fan & recommend it to friends going ‘sugar-free’. Whatever the effects, I believe it’s far better than going artificial (aspartame, sucralose, etc.) and a better result than having bad breath :)

    OnTheRun wrote on May 7th, 2010
  25. Chewed one type or another since I was a kid. I use to like the big, sweet, sugar laden gum balls for a baseball game; I’d go thru a whole pack in one game. Moved to sugar-free gum in high school and never looked back.
    I like gum…and it’s healthier than alot of other ‘filler’ foods.
    Having said that, I’m still sympathetic with people that have phenylketonurics.

    Rick wrote on May 14th, 2010
  26. Just a note about the xylitol gum…the chemical xylitol is deadly to dogs! I know my pup gets into everything so please keep this stuff out of their reach!!

    daisymaye wrote on July 12th, 2010
  27. In my opinion, it’s not so much about what’s on your teeth (unless you have one or more of those nasty lead seals – or even worse: stuff rotting underneath the seal, in which case you should see a dentist), but it’s more about what’s on (the back of) your tongue. Ever looked at your tongue closely in the mirror? Yep, it’s that white, ugly scum… THAT’S were all the stink is coming from!
    For that reason, I’ve been using a tongue cleaner at night (you can find it in pretty much any grocery or pharmacy store these days)…. that helped quite a lot .
    Then I started eating mostly primal stuff… it got even better.
    So if you take care of any dental problems, eat right and and clean your tongue from time to time, that takes care of about 90 (if not more!) percent of the bad breath. It’s probably not like you can breathe in everyone’s face and expect them to smell Colgate (unless you just brushed your teeth 5 minutes before : ) ), but even for short distances between other people, they shouldn’t be able to smell your breath. (Also, you should be breathing through your nose most of the time anyway – that way your mouth won’t dry out as fast)
    If you want absolute freshness, do the additional stuff described above.

    Uberdoc wrote on October 3rd, 2010
  28. I have never understood gum. My mother taught me to chew food with my mouth closed, but everywhere I go people are chomping away, talking, singing, even kissing with gum in their mouths. Just writing about it makes me gag a little.

    So I’d just like to say to gum chewers that it may not be terribly detrimental to your body to chew gum, but it can ruin someone’s first impression of you in a heartbeat.

    Chase Night wrote on November 16th, 2010
  29. I grow peppermint, spearmint and stevia in pots, outside in summer, inside in winter.

    So… I chew leaves instead of doing gum or mints most of the time.

    jpatti wrote on November 14th, 2011
    • Great cmmoon sense here. Wish I’d thought of that.

      Bucky wrote on February 15th, 2012
  30. Also, if you have bad breath try popping some a piece of ginger root in your mouth. It really knocks bad breath out and even jacks you up a little bit.

    Brennen Smith wrote on April 14th, 2012
  31. Well, that certainly explains the jet fuel-like aftertaste left by gum containing phenylalanine. Nutrasweet is the kiss of death for some folks.

    Ms. Ivy wrote on July 12th, 2012
  32. Came upon this site by mistake, but it seems to be very informative. I’m not into healthy things, but my overall health is okay….I guess! For breakfast I have a cigarette and a Pepsi. Lunch consists of usually the same with maybe a hot dog thrown in. Dinner is what ever and when ever. Not writing this to try and be shocking. Its the honest truth. I’m 43 now and wonder if its too late to try and get myself really healthy?

    Tommy Neil wrote on March 3rd, 2013
  33. I have many solutions for bad breath and contributors to overall oral health. I love Neem toothpaste. I strongly recommend it, although i do use a generic minty fluoride paste sometimes too. I think I have the Dessert Essence Neem and tea tree oil paste now. I’ve started making my own mouthwash with sunflower oil, apple cider vinegar, eucalyptus extract, baking soda, oregano oil, aloe juice and some other stuff i can’t remember. It’s fantastic. Lastly, I’m scared of aspartame in my mouth everyday so I do altoids or some other natural sugar mint, or my other unhealthy, delicious breath remedy is the ginger chews. They are sugary but give you sweet spicy ginger breath. I like them tea tree oil toothpicks, too.

    Will Kilbury wrote on January 10th, 2014

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