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Chew on this: It’s for your health

Special to The Times

You are what you chew -- that’s what the crowded gum aisle seems to suggest. Spicy cinnamon sticks, spearmint pellets with whitening sparkles, explode-in-your-mouth strawberry-lime pillows: There’s a flavor and form to suit every personality.

Soon, gums may offer more than just tongue-tingling tastes and tooth-brightening properties. Scientists are probing for evidence that habitual chewing can make us healthier and more alert, not to mention thinner and better at remembering names. Companies are experimenting with added ingredients that, they hope, will give gums power to suppress appetite, cure headaches, fight cancer, ward off cavities, you name it.

The research is still in the early stages, but gums containing green tea, phytoestrogens and calcium are already available in Europe and Asia. In the United States, where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American chews 1.8 pounds of gum a year, gums with added health-boosting ingredients are seen by food trend watchers as an obvious next step in the expansion of the category of candy, beverages and snacks containing herbs, minerals and other supplements.

Scientists are also looking at gum as a good alternative to pills, patches and syrups for getting prescription medicines into our bodies.

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“Gum is a very, very good delivery system that has not been fully explored,” says Christine Wu, professor of periodontics at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry.

Still, gum experts say that many questions remain with using gum to deliver drugs or nutrients. Gum can contain as many as 70 ingredients, they note, and variations allow for thousands of possible gum base formulations. Interactions among ingredients can change their effectiveness -- and scientists haven’t yet figured out how much of a drug or nutrient a stick of gum can hold or whether any given substance will be released or absorbed by the body when chewed.

“Nobody has spent millions of dollars to figure it out,” says Gary Kamimori, a research physiologist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It’s chewing gum we’re talking about.”

Shortcut to the system

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One reason for gum’s potential is that our cheeks are remarkably good at soaking things up. In a study published in 2006 in the European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, Danish scientists found that people absorbed nearly three times as much of an antihistamine called loratadine when they chewed it as a gum instead of taking it as a tablet. About 40% of the medicine entered the bloodstream straight through the lining of the mouth -- whereas pills have to work their way through the digestive system.

Kamimori and colleagues at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research have reported similar results with a caffeine-laced gum named Stay Alert, which was developed for the Army by a company called Marketright Inc. Each stick of the cinnamon-flavored product contains 100 milligrams of the stimulant, about as much as a 6-ounce cup of coffee. Though the caffeine in a cappuccino can take an hour to fully take effect, the caffeine in Stay Alert hits in just a few minutes, Kamimori says. That’s about five times quicker than caffeine in capsule form, he adds.

“It’s like pouring coffee directly into your bloodstream,” he says.

Kamimori’s studies have shown that chewing two sticks of Stay Alert for five minutes every two hours during night shifts allows soldiers to remain alert for up to 72 hours, even during overnight drives through the desert. The gum is easy to transport, he says, and stable in cold and heat. A glass of water for swallowing is unnecessary, and gum is far less likely than liquid coffee to send chewers running to the restroom. Those would be welcome features for emergency medical technicians, truck drivers and other night-shift workers.

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Marketright won’t say if it plans to publicly release Stay Alert. Other caffeinated gums already exist on the market, but they may not have been rigorously tested for their caffeine content or effectiveness, Kamimori says.

A variety of companies are starting to put their money where our mouths are. Last year, Wrigley Co. formed the Wrigley Science Institute to fund studies in labs around the world. Although it may someday add functional gums to its list of research topics, for now, the institute focuses on the benefits of regular gum for oral and overall health.

“What we’re learning so far,” says Gil Leveille, executive director of the Wrigley institute, “is that the benefits derive from chewing gum -- not any particular flavor or form.”

Many studies show that chewing gum after meals fights cavities by stimulating the production of saliva, which neutralizes the acid produced by bacteria in our teeth. A 2004 study led by Wu and funded by Wrigley found that chewing the company’s Big Red gum cut bad-breath bacteria in the mouth by more than half immediately after it was chewed. (The same would probably be true for other cinnamon-flavored gums, Wu says.)

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And an ingredient called xylitol has been shown to add an extra dose of cavity-fighting power. The benefits of that may extend beyond the mouth: A growing body of research suggests that good oral health decreases the risk of heart disease, premature birth and diabetes.

Last February, in a study published in the journal Archives of Surgery, California researchers found that, among 34 people who received colon surgery, those who chewed gum during recovery were able to leave the hospital sooner. Abdominal surgery can stop or slow the workings of the intestines, and people can’t usually eat right away. Chewing gum instead may, like chewing food, stimulate the release of gut-healing hormones.

There are mental benefits too, Wrigley’s Leveille says. He cites a Chinese study of nine people that found chewing gum boosted blood flow to the brain by as much as 40%. And a Britain-based study on 75 people, published in the journal Appetite in 2002, found that chewers did better in a word memory test.

From a list of 15 words, gum chewers recalled eight or nine words right away and seven words 25 minutes later. Nonchewers and people who pretended to chew remembered six or seven words at first and five words later. Although the scientists don’t know the reason, they hypothesize that the act of chewing increases a person’s heart rate and delivers more oxygen to the brain.

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Weight loss is another hot area of research. People have long claimed that chewing gum helps them avoid snacking, Leveille says, but data are scarce -- and conflicting. For example, in a 2006 study published in Appetite, University of Liverpool researcher Dr. Marion Hetherington found that among 60 people, those who chewed gum snacked on 36 fewer calories three hours after a meal and reported craving fewer sweets.

But a soon-to-be-published paper by Purdue University nutritionist Richard Mattes found no such link. In his trial, 47 people chewed gum either when they were hungry, two hours after lunch, or not at all. At the end of the day, all groups had eaten about the same number of calories. “I think this topic is best characterized as understudied,” Mattes says.

Could one maybe add something to gum to damp the appetite? Some small brands offer gums with chromium, touted as an appetite suppressant, and British scientists recently received funding to research a hormone called pancreatic polypeptide in injection and gum form. However, even though the body produces the hormone in response to food, there is no scientific evidence to back either one as a weight loss aid, says Gayl Canfield, a registered dietitian at the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Aventura, Fla.

Gum, she adds, will never be a magic bullet for thinness.

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Even if chewing some gum is good, too much chewing can be harmful. The repetitive stress can worsen pain in people with jaw, or temporomandibular, joint problems, says Dr. Eric Shapira, a spokesman for the Academy of General Dentistry. And that’s not the only potential problem. Tooth-whitening gum in large doses can irritate the gums, Shapira says. Vitamin C gums can create an acidic environment that wears away tooth enamel. And a kid who chews too much vitamin gum risks iron poisoning.

In the past, the market for so-called functional gum has been finicky. Kelly McGrail, senior director of corporate communications at Wrigley, notes that gums containing nicotine and aspirin have been successful, but an antacid gum released by Wrigley in 2002 quickly exited the scene. The herbal SoBe gums briefly produced by South Beach Beverage Co. met the same fate.

As research continues, however, more consumer and medical products continue to enter the market. Wrigley is marketing a breath-freshening gum with zinc and copper salts, which they say bond with sulphur compounds that contribute to bad breath. Army scientists are working on an antimicrobial gum containing protein fragments that would fight cavities, gum disease and plaque just like toothpaste does.

There are gums with green tea extracts in Asia and potentially bone-strengthening calcium gums in Europe. And there are gums that walk on the wilder side: Bust-Up gum, produced by the Japanese company B2Up, claims to boost breast size with phytoestrogens extracted from the Pueraria mirifica plant. And a company in Mexico sells Sex Gum, Love Gum and Extasy Gum -- all laced with a purported herbal aphrodisiac called damiana.

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The German company BASF, meanwhile, is producing gum with Lactobacillus -- the same bacteria found in yogurt -- for fighting tooth decay.

And University of Helsinki researchers have created a gum containing an amino acid called cysteine that may help prevent cancers of the mouth, esophagus and stomach, especially in smokers. When they indulge in their habits, smokers, as well as drinkers, produce acetaldehyde, a chemical that’s believed to be linked to digestive tract cancers. The Finnish group’s studies show that chewing a cysteine-enriched gum while smoking removes most of the acetaldehyde in saliva.

The possibilities for gum are endless, says USC’s Roger Clemens, a spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists. “It is,” he says, “the delivery vehicle of the future.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

It really has lasted

People have been champing on various gums and resins for centuries. The ancient Greeks chewed mastiche, the sticky resin of the mastic tree. Mayans chewed chicle -- the milky latex of the sapodilla tree. And Native Americans chewed spruce sap.

Here’s a timeline of more recent gum developments.

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* Early 1800s: American settlers begin selling lumps of spruce gum in the eastern United States.

* 1869: At the urging of Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, inventor Thomas Adams tries to make a rubber substitute out of chicle. Instead, he creates one of the first modern chewing gums, called Adams New York No. 1.

* 1880s: Beemans gum, with pepsin powder, claims to aid digestion.

* 1888: Tutti-frutti is the first gum sold in a vending machine -- in New York City subways.

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* 1899: Dentyne is the first gum claiming to promote oral hygiene.

* Early 1900s: Gum comes in a variety of flavors, including mint and fruit, and a variety of forms, including sticks and balls.

* 1928: An accountant named Walter Diemer invents Dubble Bubble, the first successful bubble gum. It is strong and stretchy enough to fill with air. It is also pink.

* 1928: Aspergum, with aspirin, is introduced.

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* 1953: Topps begins using comics to wrap pieces of Bazooka gum. Around the same time, they add gum to packages of baseball cards.

* 1950s: Sugarless gum appears.

* 1975: Nonstick gum appears.

* 1983: Aspartame becomes the sugarless gum sweetener of choice.

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* 1996: Nicorette nicotine gum becomes available without a prescription.

-- Emily Sohn


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