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!

TAGS:  toxins

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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49 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Phenylketonurics and Chewing Gum”

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  1. 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!

  2. 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!

  3. 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…

  4. 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!

    1. I’d rather breath free and be annoyed than have someone smoking around me.

    2. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

  6. 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. 🙂

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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?

  10. 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?

    1. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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. 🙂

  13. 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.

    1. 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 …)

  14. 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……

    1. 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 🙂

  15. 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…..

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

    1. 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!

  18. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  19. 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 🙂

  20. 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.

  21. 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!!

    1. Hi Daisy,

      You may want to give Simply Gum a shot; I have heard numerous sources that it contains no harmful substances.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. Well, that certainly explains the jet fuel-like aftertaste left by gum containing phenylalanine. Nutrasweet is the kiss of death for some folks.

  27. 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?

  28. 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.

  29. I believe that chewing gum get me through anxiety that I face on my life not only being a college student but just everyday issues that occur in my life, I am a healthy young woman who does not smoke, if aspartame is the only thing to worry about with gum than why not chew gum if it helps you curb anxiety, it is a hell of a lot better than smoking.

  30. Just an aside. Whenever I see the word “pre-historic” it gives me pause. The word itself presents a fallacious dilemma. Assuming that the word implies a time that people existed without historical documentation, how would you know they existed in the first place? By the way, hieroglyphics is a language. It’s is an ideogrammatic language just like the ancient Hebrew which pre dates it. Also, there are no historical documents in existence more than 5,000 years old. Therefore, there is no way to know what people ate 10,000 years ago, because there wasn’t anyone there to observe it! Thank you and stay safe!