Health And Wellness

Mom Claims Teen Daughter Died From Chewing Too Much Gum — But Is That Even Possible?

Photo: OlegDoroshin / Shutterstock
mom says daughter died from chewing too much gum

Maria Morgan, a mother in the UK, alleges that her daughter Samantha Jenkins died ten years ago from chewing an excessive amount of gum. Samantha was just 19 years old at the time of her death. One day, she simply collapsed, convulsing, and was taken to Prince Philip Hospital in the town of Llanelli, Wales. 

At first, they thought Samantha had been poisoned. Morgan combed through everything she could think of to find a substance that fit the bill. She found nail polish remover, had visions of antifreeze, but nothing seemed to fit. 

All the family had to go on was a feeling of lethargy, headaches, and a bout of diarrhea the day that Samantha collapsed. Then they heard the thud from upstairs, and a shout from the stairs. “Is this what it’s like to die?” 

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Did a teenager die from chewing too much gum?

The toxicology reports continued to come back negative. The doctors and the family struggled to find a culprit, and to find answers. 

Morgan realized after a time that Samantha had been chewing a huge amount of gum. She found receipts and wrappers littering her drawers and inside her bags. Every receipt had at least one pack of gum listed. 

There are chemicals in gum, of course. What most concerned Morgan was aspartame and sugar alcohols. These are non-sugar sweeteners that get a lot of flack from the public for being unnatural or dangerous. 

So, when Morgan found the wrappers, she decided that her daughter’s gum habit must have been a factor in her death. And because the coroner couldn’t rule it out, it’s listed as a possible contributor in her tragic loss. The official cause of death was ruled a cerebral hypoxia caused by convulsions and electrolyte depletion. 

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What are sugar alcohols and are they safe?

Sugar alcohols like the sorbitol found in Samantha’s chewing gum are actually carbohydrates. They aren’t sugar or alcohol, though they have properties of both. They’re used by food companies to sweeten their products without adding sugar or calories. Some are found in nature, and others are manufactured. 

We talked to Registered Dietitian Kevin Klatt, who works at the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. "Sugar alcohols, also referred to as polyols, are used throughout the food supply for both their sweetness and functional properties, as well as to reduce calorie intake," says Klatt. "Many sugar alcohols do not increase the risk of dental caries (i.e. cavities) and thus, are used in chewing gums and many oral care products, such as toothpastes and oral rinses. Sugar alcohols have a long history of safe use with regulatory bodies having approved many sugar alcohols for use."

Sugar alcohols aren’t fully digested by the body, which makes them low calorie, but it also means that they can irritate the digestive system. If too much sugar alcohol is consumed, you can experience gas, bloating, and diarrhea. Some sugarless products on the market are notorious for causing intense sessions on the commode, as noted by the product reviews for these sugarless gummy bears on Amazon. 

The other ingredient that gets a bad rap is aspartame. There are numerous rumors and conjectures floating around about the harmful effects of this particular sugar substitute. Morgan points to it as a possible culprit for her daughter’s circumstances. But according to the FDA, “Aspartame is one of the most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply, with more than 100 studies supporting its safety.”

Klatt tells us that, "The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position statement on their use notes that few side effects are observed for most individuals consuming 10-15g/day, and an increase in flatulence (gas) and water stools/diarrhea at intakes >30g for some sugar alcohols. Such side effects are most common in those consuming products with high concentrations of sugar alcohols, such as sugar free candies and pastries, as opposed to gum, that typically contains 1-2g of sugar alcohols per piece." 

Can you really die from chewing too much gum? 

So what are the facts? Is it physically possible to ingest enough sugar alcohol to cause an electrolyte depletion and subsequent seizures through excessive diarrhea? Can someone really chew enough gum to die from it? 

According to Klatt, it's likely impossible for a person to die from chewing too much gum, especially if you're looking to blame sugar alcohols. "Toxicological studies in rodents demonstrate that very high doses, more than could be achieved from chewing gum, are needed to cause death acutely," he says. "In rats, the lethal dose required to kill half of the test animals is 15.9g sugar alcohols per kilogram of body weight. Individuals consuming enough gum to even approach achieving such doses would likely suffer from acute malnutrition resulting from limited consumption of other foods and may have other altered ingestive behaviors, such as reduced fluid intake. While the pathology report in this case did not indicate the environmental cause, it is highly unlikely to have been sugar alcohols alone."

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What killed Samantha if it wasn’t her gum chewing habit? 

Cerebral hypoxia is a condition where the brain isn’t getting enough oxygen for one reason or another. It can lead to seizure and can also be fatal. It can also be caused by a number of things. So can the electrolyte imbalance that likely led to Samantha’s cerebral hypoxia. 

But it’s unlikely that chewing gum was the cause. Cerebral hypoxia can be caused by acute dangers like choking or drowning, but it can also be caused by prolonged conditions such as hypotension, brain injury, ALS, traveling at high altitudes, and even asthma. 

So while it is possible that excessive gum chewing may have contributed in some way to Samantha’s death, there are many more questions than can be answered by simply attributing it to sugar alcohols. Her mother acknowledges that. 

"I'm not stupid,” Morgan told Wales Online, “I understand that some people are like 'Shut up will you, I've chewed chewing gum since I was 10 and there's nothing wrong with me', I get that.” 

Unfortunately, though an exact cause of death or underlying conditions haven’t been identified, this tragic mystery will likely remain unsolved. 

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Kevin Lankes, MFA, is an editor and author. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Here Comes Everyone, Pigeon Pages, Owl Hollow Press, The Huffington Post, The Riverdale Press, and more.