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Dear Mark: Phenylketonurics and Chewing Gum

Posted By Mark Sisson On July 6, 2009 @ 8:31 am In Dear Mark,Health,Nutrition | 46 Comments

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 [7] in the stomach and is often recommended post-meal for those with acid reflux symptoms. Finally, chewing gum increases blood flow to the brain [8], 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 [9] 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 [10], 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 [11].

What about the alternatives? Most “natural” brands (including Peelu [12]) 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 [13], 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 [14] 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 [15] 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!

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[7] chewing gum can increase the volume and acidity of gastric juice: http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=13379344

[8] increases blood flow to the brain: http://jada.ada.org/cgi/content/full/139/suppl_2/6S

[9] some evidence: http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2007/08/20/ancientgum_arc.html?category=archaeology

[10] mentioned before: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/artificial-sweeteners/

[11] add up: http://www.nutrasweet.com/articles/article.asp?Id=47

[12] Peelu: http://www.peelu.com/

[13] fix for garlic breath: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/natural-cures-bad-breath/

[14] chicle-based kit: http://www.gleegum.com/make-gum-kit.htm

[15] rates: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/browse.php?category=breath%20fresheners&order=webscore+INC&&showmore=products&start=0

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