| Down to a Science |

What Is Saliva? 

Here are some fascinating facts about saliva
Hello, kiddos,

This is Professor Mordy Maven, Thinker, Wonderer, and Figure-Outer of all things Science-ish. What that basically means is I try really hard to figure stuff out. I do the hard work so you don’t have to!

Yesterday, Shimmy and I were walking home from school and he started talking about the individual deli rolls his mother made for Shabbos. That’s why he’s called Chef Shimmy. Because when he isn’t eating food, he’s thinking about it! His mother mixed corned beef, pastrami, and turkey, and shmeared the inside of the puff pastry with mustard and mayonnaise. On top, she coated it with duck sauce and sprinkled on crispy fried onions. She served it with a mini, crunchy pickle on the side. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that when I heard that, I started drooling.

As I was wiping the spit off my chin, I wondered, why is my mouth suddenly filled with liquid? And if my mouth can fill up with liquid on its own, why do I ever need to take a drink? Also, should I spit this stuff on the sidewalk or just swallow it? And if I decide to swallow, do I need to say shehakol?

That’s when I realized that I needed to learn more about saliva, what it is, and why we have it. So off I went to the kitchen to grab some rugelach and chew on some information.

It turns out that it all has to do with the digestive system. You see, our bodies use the foods we eat (like massive, crazy, overloaded deli rolls) to provide us with energy, vitamins, and minerals. But first, the food needs to be broken down so that the organs and cells in our bodies can use them.

I know what you’re thinking. “What are you telling me this for, Mordy? Everyone knows that digestion happens in the stomach!” Well, you’re right, but you’re also wrong. Digestion does happen in the stomach, but the very first step of digestion begins in your mouth when you chew your food into small pieces. Then those pieces are surrounded by saliva.

Saliva is a substance that is produced by salivary glands in the cheeks, under the tongue, and near the jawbone. These glands produce saliva when you eat, or sometimes when you just smell food, or even think about eating!

What exactly is saliva made of? Well, it isn’t just water. It’s a colorless fluid made of air, mucus, proteins, and mineral salts. It also has other good stuff like immunoglobulins, urea, ammonia, and phosphates (um, yum?). Saliva moistens the food to make it easier to swallow. (And as anyone who has ever tried to choke down a dry piece of afikomen knows, a little moisture goes a long way!) It also helps food particles stick to each other so they can be swallowed in one gulp, instead of having to swallow every bit by tiny bit. Maybe most importantly, saliva contains a very special enzyme called amylase, that starts to break down foods even before they get to your stomach. An average person will produce two to four pints of saliva every day.

But it isn’t just for digestion. Saliva also helps protect your teeth from cavities, wipes away food debris (so you don’t have a glob of gefilte fish from Friday night stuck in your mouth on Tuesday morning!), and helps you taste what you eat.  In fact, unless food is mixed with saliva, you can’t taste it! It also gathers up bacterial cells and white blood cells from your mouth cavity. Because, honestly, who wants that stuff floating around their mouth?

A thin film of saliva covers teeth to protect them against bacteria, and it can even neutralize the acids in food that damage teeth. If the tooth enamel does get damaged, the minerals in saliva can help repair it. It also prevents against bad breath and speeds up wound healing in the mouth. Saliva is basically a superhero!

In fact, saliva is so important to your overall health that if you have a lack of saliva (or a dry mouth), you should go speak to your dentist or doctor about it. This condition is called xerostomia and it can cause problems like infections from bacteria, yeast and fungus (yuck!). It can also cause bad breath and swollen gums and tongues. Who would have imagined that it’s so important to have enough spit?

Basically, what I’m saying is that when you feel like your mouth is filling up with liquid, don’t spit it on the sidewalk. First of all, your mother might be watching. But more importantly, that saliva is good stuff! Consider it like Food Juice and swallow it proudly. Oh, and I asked my rav, you don’t have to make a shehakol!


Here are some fascinating facts about saliva that you might like to know:

Saliva isn’t only found in the mouths of humans. All vertebrates produce saliva. So, basically, if you’ve got bones, you’ve got spit!

Spicy or sour foods cause more saliva production than sweet foods.

Scientists are working in the field of saliva diagnostics, hoping that one day soon saliva will be used as a safe, easy, and painless way to detect and prevent diseases!

If you have dry mouth, try taking a drink of water or chewing on sugar-free gum. If that doesn’t help, there is artificial saliva that comes as a liquid or a spray. It can keep your mouth moist, but it doesn’t have the special proteins, minerals, and enzymes found in real saliva.

I hope that helped solve the mystery for you, kids. And with that, I’m on to my next quest!


(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 938)

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