Gauging a gas tackler

Whether you’re still plowing through Thanksgiving leftovers or easing back to your normal fare, billions of bacteria in your digestive tract are eagerly awaiting their next meal. And if you feed them well enough, they’ll thank you by producing gas.

Lots of products claim to help deflate that familiar gassy feeling and all that goes with it. And then there’s Beano, a supplement from GlaxoSmithKline that supposedly “stops gas before it starts.”

Once available only in droppers, Beano is now sold in tablet form.

Each tablet contains 150 GalU (galactosidase units) of alpha-galactosidase, an enzyme extracted from a fungus. The enzyme helps digest the complex sugars that would normally go straight to the colon and become fodder for bacteria, the gas factories of the human body.

Users are directed to swallow or chew two or three tablets immediately before every meal with “problem foods.” According to the Beano website, the list of potential troublemakers includes beans, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, sweet peppers, onions, bagels, breakfast cereals and many other vegetables and grains.

Beano contains a wheat filler, a potential problem for people who are sensitive to gluten. (The company says that the amount of gluten in each tablet is below levels of detection.) Vegans and vegetarians should note that the ingredient list also includes cod, flounder and redfish.

Available at drug and grocery stores everywhere, Beano sells for about $12 to $15 for a pack of 100 tablets. A “to-go” pack of 12 tablets costs about $3 to $4.

The claims

In a TV ad, the Beano spokeswoman says, “When it comes to gas, you can prevent a disaster by taking Beano before, but you can’t undo a disaster by taking a gas reliever after.” The ad ends with the familiar tag line: “Take Beano before, and there’ll be no gas.”

Darren Singer, vice president of marketing for Glaxo- SmithKline, says Beano is a good choice for anyone who wants to eat a healthful diet without the unwanted side effects. “We hear from customers that it changes their lives and changes the way they eat,” he says.

The bottom line

It’s hard to know how well Beano really works, says Dr. Christian Stone, an associate professor of medicine in the department of gastroenterology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Though the theory behind it makes some sense, it’s never been tested in a high-quality study. “I have no problem with people trying it,” he says. “It’s safe. They just have to be willing to spend the money.”

A 2007 study in Italy tested a different alpha-galactosidase product on eight volunteers who ate three separate servings of beans on three different days. Before each meal, the subjects took either 300 GalU (equal to two Beano tablets), 1,200 GalU (equal to eight Beano tablets) or a placebo. In the eight hours after the meal, volunteers taking the placebo averaged about 16 episodes of flatulence. When taking 300 GalU, they averaged about 10. The 1,200 GalU dose cut it down to five.

Stone notes that the study was extremely small and was published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences, not a top-tier journal.

Even though it hasn’t been thoroughly tested, Beano could be worth a try, says Dr. Patricia Raymond, a fellow of the American College of Gastroenterology who has a private practice in Virginia. (Raymond is also a consultant for W.F. Young Inc., a company that makes CharcoCaps, another product marketed for gas relief.) There is no doubt that sugars in certain foods can cause gas, she says, and anything that breaks down those sugars would help.

However, it’s not reasonable to expect that there will really be no gas after taking Beano, she says. The enzyme won’t work on other common sources of gas, including fiber and the milk sugar lactose, she explains.

In many cases, the problem is really just one of perception, Stone says.

“People who complain of gassiness often produce a normal amount,” Stone says. Such people often just need a little reassurance, he says. Gas is a fact of life, Beano or no.

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