Something worth chewing over: the benefits of gum

Justin Thomas highlights the cognitive benefits of chewing gum and its place in Arab history

Many people see chewing gum as a negative symbol of modernity and globalisation. Lindsay Lader / AP Photo
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Imagine a big-budget biblical epic where all the lead characters chewed gum. I can hear the misplaced outrage now. I say misplaced because chewing gum has been practised in the Middle East for millennia. It’s hard for me to imagine that Balqis, the Queen of Sheba, didn’t chew gum, especially since her proposed dominions included the lands where frankincense (luban) was widely available. In addition to being burnt as incense, frankincense can be, and still is, chewed as gum.

Even if we shot a prehistoric movie where our handsome leading caveman chewed gum, it still wouldn’t be totally anachronistic. Archaeologists have unearthed chewing gum at numerous prehistoric sites. The world’s oldest piece of chewing gum is around 5,000 years old. Discovered in western Finland, this Neolithic gum still contains well-defined tooth prints.

But in many minds, chewing gum is a negative symbol of modernity and globalisation, most strongly associated with 1950s American youth culture. Hollywood once used chewing gum to denote unsavory on-screen characters. The wisecracking psychopathic gangster chewed gum, as did the morally dubious good-time girl, not to mention the morbidly obnoxious adolescent. Who could forget Violet Beauregarde, the obsessive gum-chewer from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and Chocolate Factory? Violet claimed to have chewed the same piece of gum for three months solid.

Perhaps this is part of the reason gum fell from grace – if ever it did truly enjoy grace. Many parents objected to chewing gum on all kinds of trumped-up charges and with reference to fantastical urban legends. The most bizarre one I ever heard was that, if you swallow gum it can wrap around your heart and kill you. In Ottoman culture, where gum chewing was reportedly a popular breath freshener among the ladies of the Sultan’s harem, a superstition arose suggesting that whoever chewed gum after sunset was eating the flesh of a dead body.

There is, of course, a time and a place for everything, as Barack Obama recently discovered when footage of him apparently chewing gum during India’s Republic Day parade caused a widespread media reaction. But is the negativity often associated with chewing gum thoroughly deserved? Research has shown that certain sugar-free chewing gums can help prevent tooth decay. The research evidence amassed on this question is powerful enough for the American Dental Association to come out in favour of chewing sugar-free gum. Chewing gum – the right kind, at the right time, for the right duration – is good for teeth. Should we be banning chewing gum in schools, or handing out the good stuff?

How much of our antipathy towards gum-chewing is rooted in evidence and well-founded arguments, and how much of it is it simply a legacy of urban legend, and the movies we, or our parents, watched? Gum has been chewed for millennia, and maybe the benefits outweigh the harms, if we look closely enough.

A 2014 study published in the journal, Physiology and Behavior, reports that chewing sugar-free and flavourless gum improved cognitive functioning on a task requiring concentration. The study compared the same group of participants performing the task several times, with and without chewing gum. In the gum condition, participants were faster and more accurate on the task and showed greater activation in the left frontal and temporal lobes. Other studies have reported similar cognition-enhancing effects, although how this works still needs to be elucidated. Perhaps this was the secret of champion chewer Sir Alex Ferguson's success with Manchester United at Old Trafford?

The traditional chewing gum of the Arab world would have been frankincense, and some people still chew it. I wonder if a frankincense-based chewing gum might find a share of the global market – especially if it were naturally sugar free, improved breath, sharpened cognition and boasted other health benefits.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas