Nutrition Column – Got Gas? Sugars Often to Blame

Do you avoid beans or certain vegetables for fear they’ll come back to haunt you? Intestinal gas, though rarely serious and far from life-threatening, is something most of us prefer to avoid.

Gas ends up in the intestines two ways, from swallowing excessive air or from the incomplete digestion of foods in the colon. When undigested carbohydrate travels from the small to large intestine, beneficial bacteria that live in the bowel begin to ferment it, releasing gasses and unpleasant odors.

The typical American passes gas about 14 times per day. The amount of gas depends on the types of foods eaten and one’s arsenal of available enzymes. Foods high in soluble fibers, like oat bran, fruits, some vegetables and beans, tend to produce more gas than foods rich in insoluble fiber like wheat bran and rice. That’s because bacteria in the colon break down soluble fibers, producing gas, while insoluble fibers pass through the bowel unchanged.

Certain sugars are notorious for their refusal to break down and behave well during digestion. Those of most concern include fructose, lactose, raffinose and sorbitol. Fructose is the sugar found naturally in fruits and fruit juice. High fructose corn syrup is used in many processed foods, especially soft drinks. In a recent study conducted at the University of Iowa, nearly half of those studied had trouble digesting fructose.

Lactose is the sugar found naturally in milk and milk products. Persons who lack or are low in the enzyme lactase have difficulty digesting some milk products, resulting in gas, bloating, pain and sometimes diarrhea. Raffinose is found in dry beans and vegetables from the cabbage family (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, onions). Finally, sorbitol is the "sugar alcohol" often used to replace sucrose in sugarless candies, gums and desserts. Today, with the low-carb craze, we’re seeing this product in a variety of baked goods and sweets.

So, how does one control gas? One alternative is to avoid products that produce gas. Some of the gassiest foods, however, also are among the healthiest. Dried beans and cruciferous vegetables (the cabbage family), for example, are high in fiber, low in fat and may help prevent cancer.

Here are some other strategies that may be helpful:

– Eat and drink slowly. Don’t gulp – chew each bite thoroughly before swallowing.

– Reduce the amount of air that you swallow. Avoid cigarette smoking, gum chewing and sucking on hard candies.

– Exercise regularly. Mild exercise can speed the passage of gas through the intestine, leading to less discomfort. Regular exercise also helps establish normal bowel habits.

– Soak beans overnight, then drain and rinse thoroughly before cooking.

– Cut down on carbonated drinks.  

– Limit sugar-free gums, sugar-free candies and other processed foods containing sorbitol.

– Consider using an enzyme preparation such as Beano on beans, cabbage and other vegetables or LactAid and Dairy-Ease on milk products. These products help break down certain indigestible carbohydrates before they get to the lower gut.

– In the dairy case, choose milk and milk products specifically processed to be low in lactose. Yogurt with live cultures and hard cheeses are also usually well tolerated by people with lactase insufficiency.

– If gas is painful and persistent, see a doctor.

– 30 –

by Pat Kendall, R.D., Ph.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension