Chewing Your Way to Health

In the early 70’s the San Francisco skies above St Anne of the Sunset opened up and a miracle descended upon all the children attending that Catholic grammar school. Our school had been selected to participate in a study on the potential oral health benefits of chewing gum. Hundreds of us were going to be chewing free gum and we were going to be chewing it all day long, maybe even in class!

It was like suddenly being told that not only was lying no longer a sin, you were encouraged to do it! It was your duty to do it! Was this a peak at heaven? It turns out it was more like a peak at hell.

Every child in that grammar school begged their parents to sign the research participation form. A few weeks after we’d turned in our forms, our gum arrived. Sister Mary Aloysius stood at the front of the class, and next to her, sitting on her desk, large cardboard boxes filled with our gum. We were a frenzied classroom. Even the nun was atwitter. But first, she held up a sheet of paper and began reading:

“One. You are to chew 5 sticks each day. One after each meal, one during the day, and one in the evening.

Two. You are not to skip any days.

Three. You have been randomly assigned to one of three color-coded groups. Only chew gum from your color assignment.

Four. You are not to share or give away any of your gum. Continue to brush your teeth, just as you always have, hopefully, twice each day.

This is your first set of gum. You will get your next set of gum before this batch runs out.”

She paused to let the rules sink in, and then piled on the the nun-specific rules, none of which surprised us, but were slightly deflating, nevertheless.

“One. You will not chew gum during class.

Two. You may only chew gum while on the playground during recess or lunch.

Three. You will not chew gum in the buildings.

Four. When you are through with your gum you must dispose of it properly. Do you hear me, Mr Lynch?”

A treasure trove of gum

Even though the rules had clearly spelled out that we were assigned color-coded gum, my excitement waned when Sister Mary Aloysius began pulling out our shrink-wrapped bundles of gum. For the weeks between when they first announced the program and this moment, I had been imagining an endless supply of JuicyFruit or Wrigley’s Doublemint. If we were really lucky, maybe Fruitstripes or Bazooka Joe bubblegum. Instead, each pack of gum was wrapped in plain, colored paper.

I stared at my three week supply of chartreuse gum packs, the only writing a mysterious serial number repeated on each pack. An anonymous gum. A utilitarian gum wrapped in a listless attempt to mimic “real” gum, like JuicyFruit. The majority of class got that same green-colored packaged supply. A small subset was assigned to the blue-wrapped cohort. A handful got gold-wrapped gum. The blues lauded it over us greens, while the smug golds immediately became the envy of everyone. Initial offers to swap a green stick for a blue or gold were rebuffed. It was a tough sell. You could hardly sweeten the deal by offering 2 or 3 green sticks for one blue or gold stick. No one needed even more gum. I never got a chance to taste the other colors but I heard they all tasted the same.

I was momentarily torn between excitement and disappointment. Then I hoisted my 21 5-stick packs of gum. It weighed a lot! It was possibly more gum than I had chewed in my entire life. This is not an exaggeration as my parents rarely allowed us to have gum. I was so ready for this!

The first weeks were glorious. My younger brother and I paraded our gum around the house, lamenting that my two older brothers, who were in high school, weren’t also participating. At first, we were diligent and eager to chew our five pieces of gum. One stick after breakfast. One at morning recess (why wait for afternoon recess?). Another at lunchtime. One after dinner, and our final piece with evening TV.

I soon switched to chewing my first piece while walking to school. Along our route we were usually joined by a few other St Anne kids, all of us walking and chewing. This was a good time for our first stick because we’d pass other kids going to other schools who didn’t have gum at all. Kids who had to spend actual money for gum! For the first ten days I savored that first stick much like a smoker savors the first cigarette of the day.

A few weeks in, the experiment went from awesomeness to not so fun. Gum had lost its novelty and now it was a chore. It was easy to miss one of the five daily sticks. Easy to make up for it, though — just chew two sticks at once. Towards the end of the third week, three more big boxes of gum appeared on the teacher’s desk. We each got a new bundle of 21 5-stick packs. This delivery received a muted response as we processed the commitment we’d made.

Several weeks into the program, asking “Where are you?” became an opening conversation gambit on the school playground. “I’m three days behind” was met with nods. You could make that up easily as long as you didn’t mind chewing a few sticks at once. Or tackling a series of sticks one after the other, chewing a stick just long enough for the flavor to dissipate before spitting it out. If you were more than a week behind, though, that was tough to recover from. It’s hard to tackle 3 or 4 sticks simultaneously. Your jaws just can’t take it. Trying to chew 5 sticks all at once, particularly when you still have a grammar school kid’s mouth, really is not anywhere as much fun as any twelve-year-old might imagine.

By the time the third delivery of our color-coded packs appeared, we were all dreading it. At this point, I think we were all just taking unopened packs and hiding them in our home trashcans.

Eventually the torture stopped. I don’t know if it came to its planned end or if the researchers gave up. We were told to bring in all unopened packs. I thought I was doing badly at keeping up until I saw what my classmates hauled in. Some kids had wimped out early and returned large stacks. A few of them were blue and gold cohorts. Damnit!

Being kids, we were never told what results, if any, the researchers gleaned from this study. But thanks to the Internet, you can look up lots of studies about chewing gum and oral health, most of which indicate no health benefit at all. Here’s a story about this kind of research:


Being a slow learner, when I was about 30, I signed up for a study about the potential effects of coffee. Drinking six cups during the day when it “just happens naturally” is no big deal. When you’re required to drink six cups every single day because that’s what you wrote on the participation form, it immediately becomes tedious. It’s even harder when you’re required to drink the crappy researcher-supplied coffee that “ensures consistency of results.” Even worse, attempting to catch up by cramming extra cups of coffee into your day has several unpleasant physical side effects. That study indicated a potential increase for heart issues though I knew three other people in that study and I have serious concerns about the validity of the study since I know two of them made up health-conscious eating histories since they were embarrassed to accurately document what they had eaten during the study. On the other hand, new research ( indicates 4+ cups of coffee may have some benefits, so drink up, everybody.

Just don’t ask me to participate in any future studies.

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