clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sean Spicer swallows whole packs of gum daily. Is that really a good idea?

What medical case studies say about consuming large amounts of sugar-free gum.

Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Melissa McCarthy nailed her Saturday Night Live impression of White House press secretary Sean Spicer. She captured his anger, his mocking tone toward the press, and his ability to produce spin in an instant. She also nailed the small details — like the fact that Spicer likes to swallow gum whole.

The bit about gum swallowing wasn’t a joke. Last summer, the Washington Post’s Ben Terris got a remarkable scoop: Spicer swallows whole packs of gum every day. Here’s Terris:

Even when he is not speaking, [Spicer’s mouth] works on overdrive, churning through pieces of Orbit cinnamon gum, which he chews and swallows whole. Notwithstanding his line of work, the man just can’t stand a gross-feeling mouth.

“Two and a half packs by noon,” said Spicer.

Which leaves us with a big question: Is swallowing that much gum safe?

“I talked to my doctor about it, he said it’s no problem,” Spicer told Terris. And that seems to be the consensus of medical authorities like the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic, who seem to get this question often from worried parents.

But there is potential for problems, especially in kids.

In 1998, the journal Pediatrics reported a few case studies of children swallowing gum that formed “a solid mass of indigestible material” — known as a bezoar — in their gastrointestinal tracts. In most cases, the gum caused constipation and other related problems, but in one case, Pediatrics notes, “the parent described the child’s stools as dry and ‘like glue.’”

For adults, swallowing gum seems to be mostly safe. It will just pass through the body like kernels of corn after a summertime lunch.

“If you swallow gum, it's true that your body can't digest it,” the Mayo Clinic’s Michael F. Picco writes. “But the gum doesn't stay in your stomach. It moves relatively intact through your digestive system and is excreted in your stool.”

Reportedly, Spicer’s favorite gum is cinnamon Orbit, which contains sorbitol, a sugar substitute that’s known to cause diarrhea in some people. (When you can’t digest a sugar, it lingers in the digestive tract, and can lead to water flooding the bowels. You know what happens next.)

In 2008, the BMJ published two case studies of patients who were mysteriously losing a lot of weight due to episodes of diarrhea. An investigation of their diets landed on a common culprit: sugar-free treats and gum.

In one of the case studies, a woman was reported producing seven times the normal volume of stool:

Stool collection showed that the patient produced large amounts stool — up to 1900 g daily (normal <250 g)

When we questioned the patient further, we found that she chewed large amounts of sugar-free gum, accounting for a total daily dose of 18-20 g sorbitol (one stick contains about 1.25 g sorbitol). After she started a sorbitol-free diet her diarrhoea subsided—with one formed bowel movement daily on discharge from hospital. One year later she still had normal bowel movements (one or two formed stools daily) and had gained 7 kg (body mass index 19.5).

That woman chewed around 16 sticks of gum of day. Spicer eats more than 30.

A 46-year-old man in the BMJ case study told doctors he chewed 20 sticks of sugar-free gum a day. “After he started a sorbitol-free diet, diarrhea completely subsided, with one bowel movement daily,” the BMJ reported. Progress!

“In conclusion, our cases show that sorbitol consumption can cause not only chronic diarrhea and functional bowel problems but also considerable unintended weight loss.”

That doesn’t sound too appealing.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.