White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's gum habit went viral this week, after a strange tidbit from a 2016 interview resurfaced on social media. Back in August, Spicer told the Washington Post that he chews and swallows 35 sticks of Orbit cinnamon gum a day(!)—before noon. As the factoid picked up steam, everyone's been speculating about whether it's actually safe to chew and ingest that much gum.
The short answer is no, says Roshini Rajapaksa, MD (who goes by Dr. Raj), Health's medical editor and gastroenterologist at New York University's Langone Medical Center. The issue isn’t so much swallowing the gum (more on that later), but chewing and consuming high amounts of sorbitol, an artificial sweetener found in many sugar-free gums. (Sorbitol is the first ingredient in Orbit.) “Sorbitol can work as a laxative, and cause bloating and diarrhea,” says Dr. Raj.
A 2008 report on two case studies published in the journal BMJ found that ingesting high amounts of sorbitol could cause chronic diarrhea, malnutrition, and severe weight loss. One of the case study subjects was a 46-year-old man who was chewing 20 sticks of gum, and eating other foods with the sweetener.
In another small study published in the journal Gastroenterology in 1983, people began experiencing gas and bloating after consuming 10 grams of sorbitol, and cramps and diarrhea after 20 grams. (One stick of Orbit gum contains 2 grams of sorbitol.)
Poop problems aside, the sweetener does not cause any long-term damage to the intestines, says Dr. Raj. Sorbitol-related digestive issues are typically resolved when someone stops consuming the ingredient.
This doesn’t mean Spicer is experiencing any gastrointestinal issues, Dr. Raj adds—sorbitol affects everyone differently. “Some people are more sensitive to it than others," she says. "It’s not harmful if you’re not experiencing any issues.”
Whenever someone experiences unexplained gas, bloating, cramps, or diarrhea, Dr. Raj suggests cutting off sorbitol to see if it makes a difference. In addition to sugarless gum, sorbitol can be found in diet drinks, dried fruit, and sugarless candy. And, Dr. Raj says, people who are chronically bloated should avoid chewing gum altogether because it causes you to swallow extra air. “There can be a sort of double-whammy effect if you’re chewing gum and it has sorbitol in it, so people who already have these issues should not be chewing gum.”
There is one other relevant, though small, risk worth mentioning: If you swallow a large amount of gum every day, it could stick together and form a bezoar, which is a mass trapped in the gastrointestinal system that causes an obstruction, says Dr. Raj. But if you only swallow a stick of gum every once in a while, it's not a big concern: “It should pass around the same time as other foods, in one to three days."