Many people complain of flatulence, or gastrointestinal gas, after eating large quantities of beans. It is widely rumored in cooking circles that adding a bit of baking soda before cooking can eliminate the flatulence effect, though this “trick” is unlikely to work for everyone. Adding baking soda to beans does not usually prevent flatulence. It can help reduce it in some cases, but a lot depends on individual digestion and anatomy.
Why Beans Cause Flatulence
Beans and other fiber-rich legumes like lentils cause flatulence in many people because of their high sugar content. Most contain complex oligosaccharides, which are sugar molecules that the human stomach is not usually capable of digesting — at least not with ease. As the stomach works to break down the sugars, gas emitted from the beans often gets trapped in the intestine. This can be both uncomfortable and embarrassing.
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Soaking as the Easiest Fix
In most cases, the easiest way to remove excess sugar from beans is to soak them overnight, then discard the water before cooking. As they soak, the beans typically release some of their sugars, alongside trace amounts of other nutrients. It is rare for all of the sugar to be released, but often enough is that some people may notice a difference.
Soaking usually works best for dried or fresh, just-picked beans. Consumers who do not have access to farm produce are usually limited to beans that are either dried or canned. Soaking canned varieties is usually discouraged, as it can lead to mushiness.
Canned beans are usually better suited to the so-called “quick soak” method, which involves boiling the beans in water for a short time, then discarding the water. Boiling tends to cause a release of sugars, and so long as the boiling lasts only a minute or two, the beans do not get a chance to cook or shed many of their beneficial nutrients.
How Baking Soda Can Help
Adding baking soda to beans as they soak is believed by some to help aid in sugar-shedding, but the evidence is far from convincing. Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate. In theory, the molecules in baking soda could bind to the oligosaccharides present in the beans, helping them to detach faster than they otherwise would. Another theory suggests that adding baking soda to beans can help the stomach process them, but this is usually discarded by experts as a myth. Though the soda can sometimes help speed things up, it is usually no more effective than simple soaking would be.
Downsides of Adding Baking Soda
Baking soda is not tasteless, and can impart a salty, sometimes soapy flavor to foods if used in large quantities. According to some studies, baking soda can also strip beans of vital nutrients like vitamin B if left in contact for long periods of time. A cook who elects to add baking soda to beans as they soak would be wise to rinse the beans very well, and ensure that all soaking water has been discarded before proceeding. It is not usually a good idea to add more than just a pinch to dishes that are ready to serve, either.
Most dieticians teach that the best way to reduce bean-related flatulence is to regularly eat small portions of beans. The stomach will slowly learn how to process the legumes, and over time, even vast quantities should not cause gas. Starting out with a big bowl of beans is likely to cause problems, even if they were soaked or exposed to baking soda.