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Chew on this: It's for your health

Suppress appetite, boost memory, fight disease. Gums could do it all -- thanks to the cheeks.

February 19, 2007|Emily Sohn | 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.

"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

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.

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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