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Most Embarrassing Products: Beano


Suffering from deflation? There's a "school" for that.

Certain sugars are complex. And for many people, "complex" is a problem.

Sugars like fructose, raffinose, stachyose and, with age, lactose, are used by plants to store energy, but in our bodies, they lay around largely undigested. Once they enter the large colon, the sugars become food to resident bacteria. In other words, they ferment, which creates hydrogen and other pungent gases, along with the risk of what Italians call a peto, the Finish, a peira, the German, a furz, the Japanese, an onara and the English, the toot of flatulence.

Everyone deals with this hazard on a daily basis -- episodes occur about a dozen times per day-- though some people are more sensitive to flatus-causing foods than others. Simply eliminating the potential offenders from your diet is not ideal. These sugars are in everything we really ought to be eating: beans, bananas, broccoli, oat bran, cabbage, leafy greens, and other healthy fruits and veggies. They're in all of the foods doctors recommend to help protect against the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other illnesses.

Twenty years ago, an American named Alan Kligerman came up with the missing link, helping the world feel good again about Mexican cuisine and vegetarian meals. Kligerman, who had studied dairy agriculture at Cornell University and invented Lactaid for the lactose intolerant -- a brand he sold to Johnson and Johnson (JNJ) -- packaged a food supplement from the enzyme alpha galactosidase, creating Beano.

In theory, taking Beano --now owned by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) -- helps turn complex sugars into simple ones before they can become gaseous. Anecdotal evidence from many loyal Beano buyers suggests there's something to the claim. In a double blind placebo controlled study of Beano's efficacy, published in 1994, scientists found that a dose of Beano reduced the incidence of intestinal gas for up to six hours after a meal of meatless chili. The study employed 19 healthy adults and was conducted at the University of California La Jolla. A similar test was carried out in Italy and published in 2007; it asked volunteers to eat a meal of cooked beans.

Pity the men and women assigned to the control groups.

But assuming Beano, which is made from the fungus Aspergillus niger and tastes a bit like soy sauce, is an effective anti-flatulent for at least some people, the question is how does GSK go about getting people to buy it? When the world knows exactly what Beano is for, how does a person toss it in the shopping cart without calling attention to the very habit that, world over, people always try to hide?

Start with shame and public outings. That seemed to be the logic of the product's first campaign. According to a Globe and Mail story published in 1990, "a key part of the Beano sales package is a small mailing card. The card lets customers send a free sample to anyone they know who suffers from gas.

"It seems that just about everyone who reads about Beano knows someone else who needs it."

Humor carried Beano further, as the product became a half-serious gag gift. "Partly, it's a big joke," a spokesperson for the manufacturing company told the Globe and Mail. "It's been real popular on morning radio. And you know where sales have been biggest? It's interesting. Sales are greatest in bean-growing states, especially around Detroit and in Indiana. They're really excited about it out there." The company even set up its own 1-800 Beano hotline.

Eventually advertisements made the jump to the small screen. Here's a fairly recent TV ad called The Interview.

These days Beano advertising is going for family-rated humor, instead of the cool or ironic variety. The company's new "University of Gas", a section on its website, outlines all the facts on internal wind that ever you'd want to know. The latest TV commercial features a woman who might be a suburban mom but is also the head of the University of Gas. She compares the value of using Beano before a meal, as a preventative measure, versus taking a gas relief pill after the fact. "That ship has sailed," says the actress.

Regardless of what the ads claim, however, Beano is no magic bullet. Fermenting sugars are not the only source of rectal gas. And Beano can't help with a lactose problem.

If beans alone are your issue, however, you're in luck. According to the Dry Bean Association of America, all you need do is ramp up your intake, since the more beans you consume the more your body is able to digest the dangerous sugars. You can also try cooking your beans with herbs and spices such as fennel, anise, turmeric, lemongrass, dill, oregano, rosemary, cilantro, bay leaf, ginger, cinnamon, and cumin -- none of which will trumpet your underlying motive to the world.

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