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Why Do Beans Make You Fart?

Baked beans image via Shutterstock

Beans, beans, the musical fruit. The more you eat, the more you toot. But don't blame your flatulence on the poor legumes directly. The blame lies instead with the loads of little critters teeming in your gut.

Once you mash a bowl of barbecue baked beans into a fine mush in your mouth and stomach, it moves along to the small intestine. This organ is basically a molecular chop shop, where digestive enzymes strip your meal down for whatever bits and pieces your body can use and break them into smaller components that are more easily absorbed. Proteins get broken down into peptides and amino acids, fats into fatty acids and glycerol, and some carbohydrates into simple sugars. These are then absorbed through the intestinal wall to become fuel for your body.

This process isn’t so smooth with beans.

Their natural sweetness comes from a group of sugars called oligosaccharides (some of the more common ones in beans are raffinose and stachyose, which sound like rejected Musketeers). These sugars are hulking, awkward molecules. They’re far too big to slip though the intestinal wall on their own, and our guts’ enzymatic tool kit doesn’t have the right stuff to break the big things apart into more manageable pieces. So the sugars get a free ride though the small intestine. No one messes with them, and they move on into the large intestine intact.

Here their journey comes to a halt when they’re greeted by some of your closest friends, the 700+ species of bacteria that call your lower gut home. Fully capable of handling the big meal and never ashamed to have at your leftovers, the bacteria dig into the sugars. As they eat, their metabolic activity produces gases, hydrogen and methane among them. All that gas accumulates and eventually escapes your body as a fart, which may or may not be blamed on the dog.

Not all organisms have this problem with oligosaccharides, and some fungus species possess the right enzymes to break them down. These enzymes are easy enough to extract, and are often turned into gas-relieving supplements. Beano, the most well-known example, is made with the enzyme alpha galactosidase, derived from the fungus Aspergillus niger. Pop a tablet in your mouth before dinner, and the enzyme will snap those big sugars apart into handy little sugars like sucrose, glucose and fructose, giving you things your body can use and keeping you from giving a performance attributable to the musical fruit.

Today we're answering 20 big questions like this one. We'll plan more days like this, so if you have something you're dying to know, leave us a comment or tweet @mental_floss with the hashtag #bigquestions.

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Big Questions
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

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