“Charcoal capsules may well be one of the best emergency flatulence remedies available,” touts FlatulenceCures.com.
Is that just…um…hot air?
In one poorly designed study, people who took activated charcoal capsules reported fewer “flatus events” after eating a bean meal than those who got a placebo.1
But in a better study, activated charcoal capsules worked no better than dummy capsules.2
That makes sense to one of that study’s co-authors. “Activated charcoal doesn’t bind hydrogen and carbon dioxide—the two major gases,” explains Michael Levitt, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. “So there’s no reason to think that activated charcoal would reduce their volume.”
Maybe not volume, but what about odor? A tiny fraction of intestinal gas contains sulfur. And it doesn’t take much sulfur to get peoples’ attention.
In test tube studies, activated charcoal binds sulfur gases.3 But it’s a long way from a test tube to the business end of a bowel. When Levitt gave five people activated charcoal capsules to take at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime for a week, the volunteers reported no change in “flatus malodor.”3 Nor did Levitt find more—or more odiferous—gas released from their fecal samples.
Why did activated charcoal bomb? Simple. “When it gets wet, it can’t absorb gases very well,” Levitt explains. “And it gets really wet in the intestine.”
But there’s still hope.
“Activated charcoal seems to do a really good job of trapping gaseous odors once they’re outside the body,” says Julie Furne, a health science specialist at the Minneapolis VA who has co-authored dozens of papers with Levitt.
“Cushions lined with activated charcoal work, as long as your flatus goes directly into the cushion,” she says, laughing.
(That means that products like Shreddies underpants might help. They “feature an activated carbon lining that absorbs all flatulence odours,” as myshreddies.com puts it.)
Just don’t expect any groundbreaking discoveries anytime soon. The last experiment Levitt—or anyone—published on the subject was in 2005. “I haven’t thought about it since,” he says.
Bottom Line: Don’t count on activated charcoal capsules to get rid of gas. But since charcoal does bind pretty much everything else, taking it could impair your ability to absorb medicines, vitamins, or minerals.
“Flatus remains an important problem for those who suffer from it and even more so for those around them,” wrote the authors of one study. “It is an occupational problem of considerable proportion among submariners, miners, astronauts, and elevator operators.”
Enter Beano. The over-the-counter pills contain alpha-galactosidase, an enzyme that breaks down indigestible carbohydrates in beans, whole grains, and some fruits and vegetables.
But before you consider a job below ground, in space, or at sea, consider the evidence.
Only two small studies have tested Beano’s gas-busting claims in adults. In one, 19 people reported fewer “flatus events” for six hours after eating bean chili when they got Beano (the authors didn’t say how much they took) than when they got a placebo. However, Beano didn’t seem to help those who said they typically had “problems with gas after eating beans.”4
The other study gave eight adults a bean-heavy meal on three days: once with a placebo, once with 300 units of Beano (the recommended dose), and once with 1,200 units. Only those who got 1,200 units reported fewer flatus events over the next eight hours.5
And in a recent (industry-funded) Finnish study, Beano failed to help with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. People with IBS who took 1,200 units with every meal for 12 weeks reported no greater relief than placebo takers.6
Bottom Line: There’s too little evidence to know if Beano curbs gas.
1 Am J. Gastroenterol. 75: 192, 1981.
2 Gastroenterol. 88: 620, 1985.
3 Am. J. Gastroenterol. 94: 208, 1999.
4 J. Fam. Pract. 39: 441, 1994.
5 Dig. Dis. Sci. 52: 78, 2007.
6 Scand. J. Gastroenterol. 51: 16, 2016.
Find this article about supplements for gas interesting and useful? Nutrition Action Healthletter subscribers regularly get sound, timely information about how exercise, diet, and lifestyle can affect their health. They also receive science-based advice about diet and diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoarthritis, and other chronic diseases; delicious recipes; and detailed analyses of the healthy and unhealthy foods in supermarkets and restaurants. If you don’t already subscribe to the world’s most popular nutrition newsletter, click here to join hundreds of thousands of fellow health-minded consumers.