Pharyngula

Gum disintegration syndrome

Here’s a weird and trivial phenomenon to consider: gum disintegration syndrome.

I’m not much of a gum-chewer, and never have been…but I remember gum from when I was a kid, and you could chew and chew and maintain a flavorless wad for a long time. Recently, I thought I’d try gum as an appetite suppressant, and I got some of the sugarless stuff. To my surprise, I’d chew on it for a few minutes, and shortly I’d feel it losing its texture and getting runny, and then it would dissolve into small fragments that I’d just swallow. I thought it was those dang cheap confectionery companies, that the formulas for gum base had changed since I was a kid, or maybe it was the sugarless kind that was just different. I tried a couple of different brands—same result. I would have abandoned it there and chalked it up to yet another example of the evils of creeping capitalism and Things Were Better in the Good Old Days, but I mentioned it to my wife, who thought I was nuts. She’s been dipping into my gum, and noticed no difference—it lasts as long as she wants to chew it.

Weird. My wife sent me this Straight Dope article on it, but it’s not very helpful. There’s some speculation that it’s a result of secretions during arousal (unlikely in my case; I can be reading, or driving the car, and it happens…unless perhaps I have a remarkable libido) or temperature (I tried taking the gum out every once in a while to cool, but no difference, it still breaks down. Besides, my body temperature isn’t unusual enough that my doctor has noticed.) At this point it’s simply a mystery. Maybe I’ve acquired some novel new digestive enzymes, but I don’t think I’ve been in any teleporter accidents—if I graduate from dissolving Wrigley’s to novel ways of eating donuts, I’ll let you know.

I’m not concerned about it*—maybe it’s just as well this is a vice I won’t be pursuing—but now I’m curious. Anyone else have the power to reduce gum to soup? Does it only happen in moments of passion? Details!

*Although…if everyone gets a mutant superpower in their life, and mine is the ability to digest gum instead of acquiring laser eyeballs or telepathy or super-regeneration, I’m going to feel ripped off.

Comments

  1. #1 Ick of the East
    October 29, 2006

    Yes, this does happen on occasion.

    I find that it tends to happen if I still had the residue of a meal in my mouth when I started chewing. Especially squid.

    And smaller pieces of gum are reduced to mush much faster than larger pieces.

  2. #2 PZ Myers
    October 29, 2006

    I was thinking along the same lines, that maybe it was something I’d eaten. I tried variations on that, no difference.

    I haven’t had squid in so long…I have to make a trip to the big city to get any. That one’s out.

    Unless, of course, the long-awaited transformation has begun. Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!

  3. #3 Avian
    October 29, 2006

    I think this proves that you’re venomous. Perhaps a vampire. Ooo, perfect for halloween!

  4. #4 Shalini
    October 29, 2006

    The venomous mad scientist, perhaps?

  5. #5 Phoenician in a time of Romans
    October 30, 2006

    I haven’t had squid in so long…I have to make a trip to the big city to get any.

    God, I hope you’re just talking about eating them. On this blog, you can never be too sure…

  6. #6 Ichthyic
    October 30, 2006

    God, I hope you’re just talking about eating them.

    you should be even clearer, after that “artistic squid” post, and substitute “ingest” for eat.

    on the topic, though. I’ve never heard of this before.

    my best guess is your better half (or your progeny) are having a bit of fun with you.

  7. #7 Dennis
    October 30, 2006

    The arousal thing might have some truth to it. I’ve been chewing a particular brand for several months, and in a certain boring seminar, my thoughts will occassionally turn to the erotic, and before you know it I’m drinking the gum I had been chewing.

    As for your experiences while not aroused, there’s no reason to suppose that whatever enzyme is being produced (or overproduced) by arousal in some of us shouldn’t be produced (or overproduced) as a general rule in you. You’re the biologist, you’ve heard of anomalies! Anyway, maybe your mutation-power is only just budding. Normally, I’d trust you to keep any further interesting symptoms to yourself… but after that squid post… *shiver* No scuples at all!

    Oh well, far from the worst thing I’ve seen in the blogosphere today.

  8. #8 KB
    October 30, 2006

    I’ve only experienced this when chewing hard-shelled gums like Altoid’s brand, so I assumed it was specific to the brand. It may have been due to the heat (I live in Arizona), but I haven’t had any problems with the Extra brand I bought recently. Extra is sugar-free, so maybe give it a try if you haven’t already. I have to wonder what factors are influencing the disintegration…

  9. #9 llewelly
    October 30, 2006

    It’s a rare parasitic protozoan, a population of which has taken up residence in your mouth. It steals some of your food, and produces an enzyme which dissolves gum, so it can eat that too.
    Your wife won’t catch it because she’s infested with a competing parasitic protozoan which out-competes it, but can’t produce the gum-dissolving enzyme.

    Ok, I made all that up…

  10. #10 Joel Sax
    October 30, 2006

    Is this a challenge to show that we can copulate and chew gum at the same time?

  11. #11 Hank Fox
    October 30, 2006

    Mighty Cthulhu begins to manifest his powers! Tremble, humans!

    (Mrs. Myers, you might want to rethink this kissing business. If his saliva can dissolve modern vulcanized CHEWING GUM, think what it can do to human flesh.)

  12. #12 Sarah
    October 30, 2006

    I’ve had this happen on a couple of occasions. Once it appeared to be a ‘bad batch’ of gum, because I bought a 3-pack and every piece of gum in each pack disintegrated in the way you describe.

    The other times it occurred when I chewed gum immediately after eating chocolate.

  13. #13 postblogger
    October 30, 2006

    Super-corrosive saliva doesn’t sound that bad a superpower. For starters, the ability to ‘liquidise’ things means that you’d fit right in with the other cartoon cephalopods and maybe the X-men would have to fire you at Magneto to corrode your way through his helmet, or something. Sounds like front-line superhero stuff to me…

  14. #14 student
    October 30, 2006

    Can I do a UROP on this?!

  15. #15 A lemur
    October 30, 2006

    Yeah, but then what superhero name do you get to use?
    “Spit Boy” has *ahem* a certain charm…
    “Venomous Saliva Lad” would immediately qualify you for admission to the Legion of Superheros, while “Gum Disintegrator Man” (able to project a stream of liquified gum at heinous evildoers) I’m afraid would only get you admission to the B-list groups.

    Unless of course you went mad with power and attempted to take over the world…”TREMBLE BEFORE ME PUNY MORTALS OR I SHALL SPIT LIQUIFIED GUM AT YOU. “…then you could chose a really cool name like ‘Gum-o-lactus’ or ‘Spitacus’

  16. #16 Paul Koeck
    October 30, 2006

    Unfortunately, this means creationists who whine about you having an acid tongue can now point to concrete evidence. That’ll be a novel experience for them. Maybe they’ll something.

  17. #17 Paul Koeck
    October 30, 2006

    Ack…Maybe they’ll –> learn <-- something.

  18. #18 postblogger
    October 30, 2006

    PZ can’t be Spitacus, I’M Spitacus!

    etc….

  19. #19 jaimito
    October 30, 2006

    Dear Prof PZ Myers,
    F.A.K.E. is a non profit volunteer organization working on natural recycling, and have been searching for a biodegradation solution for plastic HDPE soft drink bottles and other “hard” synthetic materials. Would you volunteer and chew, on an experimental basis, a few tons of these materials? You contribution to Earth and Science shall be much appreciated.
    Regards,
    Jaimi To
    F.A.K.E. Eco-Logics.

  20. #20 Thomas
    October 30, 2006

    I’ve noticed this with specific brands, Altoids especially (as mentioned above). I’ve also noticed that this happens when I chew gum shortly after eating peanuts or other nuts.

  21. #21 PZ Myers
    October 30, 2006

    So I must be secreting something in my saliva: Oils? Lectins? I know! Bile!

  22. #22 Magnum
    October 30, 2006

    A couple of times my chewing gum has suddenly started dissolving and rapidly disappeared, after I’d been chewing for quite a while with no hint of anything happening.

    Quite a few other times, I’ve noticed it begin to happen, and I put the chewie at the front of my mouth and try to swallow as much of the saliva in my mouth as I can. I give it a few tentative chews, and after a couple of turns I’m able to rescue my chewing gum.

  23. #23 David Harmon
    October 30, 2006

    llewelly may have made up his riff, but consider: From the various reports, the effect seems consistent only to particular combinations of individual people, gum compositions, food residues, and/or states of arousal, and even there its initial appearance seems erratic.

    Why not some bacterial population, occasionally achieving a “perfect storm” that produces some sort of latex-ase? Depending on the particular mix of mutations, it could well need additional feedstocks, catalysts, or hormones to pull its trick, but since the genetic pool of the bacteria is unique to the person in question, the “missing pieces” involved would vary widely … which is more or less what the accounts suggest.

  24. #24 David Harmon
    October 30, 2006

    llewelly may have made up his particular riff, but consider: From the various reports, the effect seems consistent only to particular combinations of individual people, gum compositions, food residues, and/or states of arousal, and even there its initial appearance seems erratic.

    Why not some bacterial population, occasionally achieving a “perfect storm” that produces some sort of latex-ase? Depending on the particular mix of mutations, it could well need additional feedstocks, catalysts, or hormones to pull its trick, but since the genetic pool of the bacteria is unique to the person in question, the “missing pieces” involved would vary widely… which is more or less what the accounts suggest.

  25. #25 mark
    October 30, 2006

    I used to buy that gum from the vending machines in the men’s rooms, but it always tasted like rubber.

  26. #26 Lynn Kale
    October 30, 2006

    This happened to me once. Strangely I had been chewing a large mass of gum for several days (I was only 10 or so at the time, and I had to make my gum last!) and when I added another piece of gum to the wad, it suddenly became much more runny, and was sticking to my teeth. I had to spit the whole thing out.

    If it was just a bad stick of gum, it had the ability to bring the whole mass crashing down.

  27. #27 lo
    October 30, 2006

    Wow, quite an original and very interesting theme.

    Please pursue this further. I can`t remember that any chewing gum every gave up on me, but of course there are only two options as you (duh!) have noticed as well: enzymes or simple chemicals. Well such ionic molecules (e.g. HCL in bile) you would notice yourself, and enzymes can only come from bacteria which are probably lysed due to the mechanical pressures since diastase et al are virtually harmless.

    So please if you find some time research a bit into it and let us know what u found out. You could also always make a swab and put it on a petri dish just to see if something unusual pops up.

  28. #28 craig
    October 30, 2006

    The oil or peanuts thing might make sense.

    Peanut oil dissolves sticky adhesives. Its great for removing sticker residue from things.

  29. #29 PZ Myers
    October 30, 2006

    I did try another variation this morning. Brushed my teeth thoroughly, used a mouthwash vigorously, waited a half hour drinking nothing but water, then tried a stick. It might have lasted a little longer than before, but it still turned into paste within ten minutes.

    Spitting at people might have become a serious threat now. Anyone you think I ought to dissolve?

  30. #30 RavenT
    October 30, 2006

    Spitting at people might have become a serious threat now. Anyone you think I ought to dissolve?

    Heh–sounds like my list of people I’m going to bite, if I ever get rabies…

  31. #31 wintermute
    October 30, 2006

    Super-corrosive saliva doesn’t sound that bad a superpower. For starters, the ability to ‘liquidise’ things means that you’d fit right in with the other cartoon cephalopods and maybe the X-men would have to fire you at Magneto to corrode your way through his helmet, or something. Sounds like front-line superhero stuff to me…

    Sounds like Matter-Eater Lad to me.

    The Invincible Super Blog is always the best place to learn about super heroes. Especially silly ones.

  32. #32 g.
    October 30, 2006

    Well, the only two times this happened to me was when I ate a Walnut while chewing gum.
    Not a pleasant surprise having that kind of reaction happen in your mouth (at least it was endothermic as far as I remember 😉

  33. #33 Brian X
    October 30, 2006

    I have experienced this, but only with CareFree peppermint, which I don’t even like anymore anyway (too soft — is it even still available?) I generally chew Doublemint, which is made of much stronger stuff.

  34. #34 donna
    October 30, 2006

    I can’t chew sugarless gum because any of the “ols” like sorbitol give me nasty diarrhea.

    We all just react to these things differently….

  35. #35 Mrs. Coulter
    October 30, 2006

    I have a theory, only a theory, mind you, that this happens when the gum in question has been heated (accidently) and then cooled. I have had this happen several times with packs of gum that had been left in the car on hot summer days. My theory is that the heat brings about a chemical reaction of some sort that changes the consistency of the gum permanently. I have not tested this in any scientifically rigorous manner.

  36. #36 Steve Watson
    October 30, 2006

    Spitting at people might have become a serious threat now. Anyone you think I ought to dissolve?

    Nah. Most of the people who deserve it already seem to melt down just from reading your blog……

  37. #37 Pete K
    October 30, 2006

    Wouldn’t an enzyme assay help settle it? And an estimate of Darwinian fitness (or lack thereof)?

  38. #38 David Harmon
    October 31, 2006

    Hmm, Mrs. Coulter’s idea is interesting, and eminently testable.
    Unfortunately, the only gum I chew these days is Nicorette, and it doesn’t seem wise to test with that.

    This thread is turning into an interesting demo of scientific “brainstorming”!

  39. #39 AJ Milne
    October 31, 2006

    I really don’t chew much gum. Once in a blue moon, too far from a toothbrush and someone offers it, that kind of thing.

    But I’ve noticed the same thing, the odd time. Goes chunky, then dissolves entirely. I’d always assumed it was that particular gum, but like I said: I don’t chew it frequently enough to have a clue.

  40. #40 Alex
    November 11, 2006

    Yea the same “gum dissolving” thing has happened to me before. It was very random too I was just chewing and it turned to mush, it also got this disgusting taste.

  41. #41 Alex
    November 11, 2006

    WOW im actually chewing gum right now and its doing this ( tries eating chocolate and all the otehr stuff people said worked so I guess you were all right!) I found that it’s happening because im not chewing on it, im just sucking on it.

  42. #42 Greg Laden
    June 28, 2007

    Hypothesis:

    At a certain minimum temperature, an enzyme in saliva breaks down some of the carbohydrates or other structural material in chewing gum.

    Many enzymes have a threshold at which they start fairly quickly to work (or work at a higher level). Some enzymes are found in more than one part of the digestive tract, some are meant to mix with food and travel down the tract with the wadge, etc. So it is not an odd idea that there is a salivatory enzyme that is usually not fully active in the mouth.

    Your mouth temperature is not that important, and it varies from person to person. For example, my under-the-tongue “normal” temperature is 97.5. If I read 98.6 on an oral thermometer, I’m sick.

    The obvious thing to do, PZ, is to take several measurements of your mouth temperature. This will vary from person to person. Perhaps you have hyperthermalcephaly or something (no need to worry, just chew ice now and then).

    The gum disolving when kissing thing could easily be this exact same phenomenon. The mouth is likely to warm up, as does the entire head pretty much, and the extremities in general, during such activities. People who experience eroticostimulated gum dissolution may simply be getting “hot” quite literally and kicking in the enzyme.

    The most likely enzyme is amylase. That is probably what digests the gum that you swallow.

  43. #43 PZ Myers
    June 28, 2007

    Since gum isn’t a carbohyrate, amylase doesn’t sound likely — it’s a polymer extracted from a plant resin (or more usually now, a kind of plastic made from petroleum). It should be indigestible, so I was leaning towards something acting as an emulsifier or something similar, that didn’t really break apart any bonds, but just separated the strands of polymer. That’s why I suggested bile up there.

    Anyway, I was so in terror of my mysterious alien abilities that I took the coward’s way out: I stopped trying to chew gum.

    Nowadays I eat a healthy and inexpensive diet of styrofoam packaging and diced tires.

  44. #44 Greg Laden
    June 28, 2007

    I was assuming gum was not gum. (Like a chocolate bar rarely has enough chocolate to choke a dog.)

    You should really get a better diet. I’d like to suggest sawdust. In the summer you can mix it with Gaterade. (It goes best with the blue kind)

  45. #45 Greg Laden
    June 28, 2007

    Oh, and you should definitely avoid using Nicotine gum. It could be like inhaling an entire cigarette in one puff.

  46. #46 Greg Laden
    June 28, 2007

    OK, one more point before I go off to sleep for the night ….

    “Gum” (sap, basically) does not normally dissolve in the mouth. I checked: It does not digest in the gut either.

    Yet there are some primates who “eat gum.” I assume they are mostly getting sugar from sap but they are eating some gum. So there is something that digests gum in some primates. In fact, quite a few species.

    So, my new hypothesis (less specific than the last one) is that this is a genetic mutation. Or you are part Marmoset.

  47. #47 lobsterlily
    June 29, 2007

    Actually, I do a lab with my high school kids on solubility – the last “experiment” is dissolving gum with peanut butter. The oils in the pb dissolve the gum. (It’s also usually quite disgusting for the gum chewer – which, of course, makes it a good “lab”). The kids sometimes immerse the slightly chewed gum in either a beaker of water or a beaker of vegetable oil and stir/chop with a spoon. The gum just breaks up a bit in the water, but gets all slimy and starts disintegrating (never completely in our lab period) in the oil.

    My grandmother also taught me that peanut butter gets gum out of hair (I’ve always had long hair that occasionally goes everywhere, hence the need for me to know!!)

    Greg – amylase breaks down complex sugars, so would “break down” gum when it is first put in the mouth. But there has to be something else to actually break down the gum part.

    Maybe PZ has oily spit?? 😉

  48. #48 Emily
    February 15, 2009

    Wow, Ive always wondered this, because it happens to me just about every time I chew gum. I thought I was the only one and everyone thought I was crazy. I would really love to know why. I thought maybe it was the way I chewed it.. who knows.

  49. #49 Scott
    April 8, 2009

    This happens to me a LOT. Every time I ask someone, “ever had chewing gum dissolve in your mouth?” they act like they’ve never heard of such madness, and usually have no interest in hearing about it, leaving me to wonder what the question must sound like to a person who’s never had it happen. I’ve begun to believe I have a high acid content in my mouth or something. I do like squid, but it’s been a while. (Surume! Good with Japanese beer!)
    I had to swallow two consecutive pieces of gum at a rock concert last night cuz I was squished among a crowd of metalheads (no, preevs, that did not turn me on), didn’t want to leave because I was waiting for one of my favorite bands to play and didn’t want to give up my square foot of floor space, so I had nowhere to spit out the orange goo.
    Well, thanks to everybody on this thread for letting me know I’m not the only one. Maybe we should form a coalition. Or a rabid demolition crew that gnaws at the corners of old buildings. We’d be cheaper than dynamite.

  50. #50 Ben
    May 16, 2009

    I have the same problem, but it’s generally only when I’m not chewing the gum fast enough or “chewing” it with my tongue.

  51. #51 Ben
    May 16, 2009

    Oh — You don’t happen to be able to gleek, too? Perhaps we are Reptilians! 😮

  52. #52 mbert
    May 1, 2010

    This happened to me yesterday. Interestingly, I had been chewing a stick of Juicy Fruit for about an hour and a half. My jaw was a little tired, so I took a break from chewing and just held it in the side of my mouth for a while. Within a minute, it started disintegrating.

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