Many years ago — 34 to be exact — I was a young man of 20 going with a girl with whom I had, by the standards of the 50s, a passionate relationship. That meant we necked a lot in parked cars. One night as we were kissing, I noticed that my chewing gum, which I had had in my mouth for some time, suddenly disintegrated into many tiny pieces. I was forced to spit them out since all cohesiveness was gone. In the weeks that followed I noted the recurrence of this phenomenon several times, always while similarly engaged. I later broke up with this girl and I don't remember if it ever happened with successor girlfriends. Maybe I stopped chewing gum while kissing, I don't know.
Several years ago, I read an article in Playboy in which the author described how the same thing had happened to him as a young man. He wrote about the incident as if it had been a phenomenon exclusive to himself, but I knew exactly what he had experienced. My guess is that "disintegrating gum syndrome" is probably caused by a hormonal change in my saliva stemming from sexual arousal. I wonder (a) if Cecil has ever heard of this and if so, (b) does he know the cause, and (c) how common is it?
J.M., Bedford, Texas
Cecil’s natural reaction, on receiving letters of this kind, is to assume that the writer is nuts. Cecil assumes this because nine times out of ten the writer IS nuts. Remind me to show you the one about the cows and the barbed wire someday. However, vaguely recalling having seen something similar once, I rummaged through the files and came upon the following dusty missive from M.W. of Chicago: “An acquaintance of mine recently told me that if a person chews gum while engaging in sex, the gum will dissolve in the chewer’s mouth due to some extraordinary secretion of …,” etc.
Needless to say, anytime you get the same question twice from different parts of the country, you have to figure something is up. (Or else the Teeming Millions are conspiring against you, a possibility Cecil refuses to even consider.) Not that I was necessarily eager to do anything about it. It took two years and countless heartfelt pleas before I caved in and answered the one about why asparagus imparts a funny smell to your — well, you remember. Right now I am holding out against a phalanx of maniacs demanding to know about “piss shiver,” a mystery that for now I am content to leave unplumbed.
Still, there are some questions that cry out for an answer. Having conducted an informal survey, I would say that the incidence of disintegrating gum syndrome is blessedly low. However, J.M., not that I want to point any fingers, this is probably because most people do not chew gum while making out. (Incidentally, if I might ask, what kind of desperate bimbo were you going out with who not only let you chew gum and spit out the pieces while smooching, but put up with a repeat performance?)
Being devotees of the scientific method, Mrs. Adams and I next retired to the laboratory for a round of experiments. She helped herself to a wad of Big League Chew (she’s always been a little butch), while I chose Wrigley’s Doublemint — hoping, of course, to double my pleasure. We thereupon commenced a rigorous program of research. I am not at liberty to disclose the details of this, owing to considerations of marital harmony; suffice it to say we were thorough. End result: not a godblessit thing (apart from the usual). I am totally bummed. Obviously we lack, how do you say, chemistry. (In our defense, I must say that chewing gum during a clinch puts a distinct damper on your ardor. You Texans are made of stronger stuff.)
In the interest of thoroughness, I have also made a few discreet inquiries, all to no avail. Disintegrating gum syndrome, it appears, is a phenomenon unknown to science. (During sex, that is. I’ve heard some claim they’ve had chewing gum disintegrate on them because of some mysterious property of their tooth fillings.) I am thus obliged to throw the matter up to the Teeming Millions, ever willing to give their all in the pursuit of knowledge. Reports from the field are now being gratefully accepted. An anxious world awaits the results.
Notes from the field Part One
The enigmatic enzyme that dissolves gum might occur in chocolate. When I was a child, my Double Bubble gum would disintegrate if I ate M&Ms at the same time. I trust you will continue to pursue this matter.
— S.M., Seattle, Washington
I experienced disintegrating gum syndrome about three weeks ago. I was watching the movie No Way Out and my Carefree Sugarless Spearmint disintegrated in my mouth near the end of the film. Regarding hormones, I know that I was turned on by Kevin Costner, but I never made the connection before now. I will experiment some more with this phenomenon and keep you posted.
— L.O., Washington, D.C.
I too have experienced the disintegrating chewing gum phenomenon. Heat or direct sunlight will cause the required results. The preferred method is to place the pack of gum on the dashboard of your car on a reasonably sunny day (you may have to experiment to maximize the loss of cohesiveness/time ratio). Then when the gum is chewed it will quickly devolve into a mass not unlike a spitball or a particularly rotten oyster. This can occur without any foreign saliva or increased hormonal activity.
— Joe M., Bethesda, Maryland
The first gum that ever disintegrated in my mouth was Adams Black Jack. Never could figure out why, except that I chew gum a long time. Black Jack didn’t lose its flavor quickly, so you could chew it for days on end. Eventually it disintegrated, though. Then last year they brought Black Jack back after a long absence. I noticed that certain changes in my mental outlook, chiefly nervousness and anger, seem to change my saliva and cause the gum to disintegrate sooner. I don’t chew gum during sex (the fact that a stick of gum lasts for many days make give you a clue to the extent of my sex life), so I can’t help much there.
— Jim B., Janesville, Wisconsin
It always happens to me at concerts. Maybe it’s adrenalin.
— A.B., Rockford, Illinois
Your column reminded me of a story my mother told me about her grandmother, a great practical joker, who told her that if she put butter on her chewing gum, she would be in for a treat. She tried it and her gum disintegrated! After reading this, I thought about the composition of lipstick. I don’t know exactly what’s in it, but I suspect it may have compounds similar to butter and be responsible for the disintegrating gum.
— B.J., Chicago; similarly from Ralph B., Evanston, Illinois
This occurs with me but not during foreplay. After several minutes of chewing while on an exercise bike the gum often disintegrates. I think excessive chewing in any kind of hyperactive state may induce DGS.
— David D., Santa Monica, California
Cecil has dutifully spent the last hour chewing a stick of Juicy Fruit and then applying a generous dab of Estee Lauder Terracotta Tile Re-Nutriv Lipstick. (To the gum, that is, not me. There are limits to the amount of embarrassment I am going to endure for this job. Also, if I might ask, what kind of a name is “Terracotta Tile” for a lipstick?) Then I recommenced chewing. Result: a queasy sensation in the stomach, otherwise zilch. Tonight we try lipstick plus exercise bike and M&Ms while reading about nuclear war (to induce nervousness). Per aspera ad astra.
Notes from the field, Part Two
Cecil, 1,100 lashes for your non-answer to J.M.’s question about disintegrating gum syndrome. The mundane truth is that gum disintegration is caused by carbohydrate digestion. Saliva contains an enzyme called ptyalin that breaks down the branched polysaccharides of the carbohydrates into oligosaccharides. In other words, if you hold thoroughly masticated gum in your mouth long enough without chewing it, the saliva begins digesting the gum’s carbohydrate linkages. Presto, the gum disintegrates! Physiology solves another enigma.
— D.M.A., San Antonio, Texas
It’s a sad day when I, a lowly member of the Teeming Millions, must pen (word process?) a missive to Cecil Adams to inform him of the facts of science, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. The disintegration of chewing gum while exercising, eating butter or other food, kissing, or engaging in more expressive demonstrations of love or lust is not in the least mysterious. Nor is there any need to invent exotic digestive hormones.
Given time, the enzymes in ordinary saliva at body temperature will cause chewing gum to break down. However, the oral cavity is rarely at body temperature, since it’s cooled by the passage of air during breathing. (That’s why you put the thermometer under your tongue and keep your mouth closed when checking for fever.) In addition, chewing tends to knock the enzymes loose from the gum before they can do their stuff. So the gum retains its elasticity.
But certain conditions can hasten digestion. Experiment: Leave gum on your dashboard while parking on a hot summer day with the windows rolled up. Start to chew the hot gum and it will immediately begin to fall apart.
Experiment: Chew gum while drinking warm (body temperature) coffee. The gum will start to fall apart. Now breathe through your mouth. The gum will regain its elasticity.
Experiment: Chew gum for several hours. The gum will gradually lose its elasticity as the saliva breaks down the gum.
Experiment: Eat just a little of something greasy while chewing gum. The grease will interfere with the gum’s sticking to itself, allowing your saliva to attack it.
Your correspondents must have put old gum into a corner of their mouths or under their tongues and stopped chewing while otherwise occupied. This results in the gum heating up while being kept close to the salivary glands and not being chewed. No wonder it fell apart. If you failed to cache the gum in your cheek it’s clear why you and Mrs. Adams were unable to replicate the earlier writer’s experience. Or perhaps you just don’t get as heated up as much as you used to when you were first courting. These things happen, you know.
— Phil R., Deerfield, Illinois
Sounds plausible, Phil, but the folks at Wrigley are skeptical — they say the gum base, while edible, isn’t digestible. (That is to say, it passes through the body without being broken down by the digestive juices.) On the other hand, I don’t know that they’ve had much experience chewing the stuff for days at a stretch. At any rate, we’ve done what we can to bring this phenomenon to the attention of the world. All in a day’s work here on science’s cutting edge.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.