“If you swallow your gum, it will stay in your stomach for seven years”

Informant Data: My informant is an International Relations and Global Business major here at the University of Southern California. She is a first generation Filipina and is fluent in Tagalog.  She grew up in Oakland, California before coming down here for her undergraduate degree. She is very bubbly and loves to use proverbial phrases in everyday life.

Item: The folk-belief that if you swallow your chewing gum, it will stay in your stomach for seven years. The following quotations are direct transcriptions of my dialogue with the informant, while the additional information provided is paraphrased.

Contextual Data: My informant first heard this belief as a young child, “as early as I first started chewing gum,” she says. The belief is that “if you were to swallow your gum, it would stay stuck in your stomach for seven years, piling up with all the previous pieces you have swallowed.” When asked if she believes this, she says “I understand that it is not true, I’ve looked it up and gum goes through your system like everything else. But still, I can’t swallow gum! It feels so unnatural after believing I couldn’t for so long.” Where this belief originated is rather tangible, chewing gum is different than the other food items we consume. It is very obviously man-made, does not disintegrate when chewed and it has a very sticky, adhesive-like consistency. All these factor into a question of whether one’s stomach could break it down. “I always thought it would get stuck in my stomach, because it was so sticky, not that it was mysteriously impassible.” When asked why she thought it was seven years, my informant said: “I think seven is often a daunting number, there are a lot of other sayings that involve it, like for instance they say if you break a mirror you will have seven years of bad luck. I guess it’s completely arbitrary but it also sounds convincing.” Despite the folk-belief being disproven, it serves as a good general caution for children to be careful what they try to eat. However, it should be noted, that eating anything indigestible in mass quantities can be dangerous. If a child is to swallow one marble, something even more apparently inedible than gum, there is relatively low risk (despite the major choking hazard) of complications—it should pass through your system just like chewing gum. But, there are commonplace stories circulating of a kid who swallowed all his marbles and needed surgery. Albeit these are legends with questionable veracity, it seems to be common sense that this is a dangerous activity. On the other hand, chewing gum resides more in the grey zone between food and not-food, and should be swallowed (if you must) with caution.