Imagine this scenario. You’re sitting in a meeting, all is quiet, only one person is speaking softly but clearly. Suddenly, it arrives. Gas. You can feel it squirming through your guts. The time is near. A bead of sweat rolls down your forehead as the tension rises. There is no time to excuse yourself. Not one second is left. You have no option. It escapes with an unmistakable sound. All attention focuses on you as your face flushes crimson. Oops! Excuse me!

Many of us have faced this common experience at some point, even if in a slightly different situation. We all understand the embarrassment of ‘letting one rip’. A healthy person passes gas about 12-25 times a day, and those with some digestive conditions can pass gas as much as 50 times! That’s a lot of flatus and yet we have societal expectations to hold it in. Why is this necessary digestive function so taboo?

Although it was illegal to pass gas in ancient Rome, other societies embrace the act of ‘cutting the cheese’. We have French culture to thank for some fantastic flatulence feats in the form of Monsieur Joseph Pujol (1857-1945), better known as Le Pétomane, a true fartiste! His story began one day after he left school, heading for a casual swim in the sea. While putting his head under water and holding his breath, he felt a strange icy sensation in his rectum. Immediately, he swam to the shore to discover that water was pouring out of his anus. This led to parlour tricks when he was in the army. He could draw up water from a pan via his anus and squirt it metres away! Then came his glory days when he realized he was also an expert at controlling passage of gas. He started his act on stage in Marseille and, encouraged by his success, went on to Paris to show his stuff at the Moulin Rouge. This man embraced the power of gas in his body, using it to create sound effects including cannons, thunderstorms, animal noises, and earthquakes. He even played a flute with the sound generated by passing gas through a rubber tube inserted in his anus! He controlled his flatus well enough to ‘sing’ La Marseillaise and even blow out a candle from a distance. Now that’s putting your toots to good use! Even psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud, enjoyed taking in Le Pétomane’s shows every now and then. Pujol later left the Moulin Rouge and created his own traveling show called the Theatre Pompadour. Although Pujol passed away (no pun intended) in 1945, a new legend lives on through performances by Britain’s Mr. Methane who continues to put ‘the art in fart’.


We advise against blowing out candles with your flatus, unless you are very experienced. Methane and hydrogen are both problematic; when ignited, methane creates a blue flame, and hydrogen is explosive!


Scientifically speaking, what’s in a fart? The exact chemical makeup of flatus varies from person to person and situation to situation. This gas comes from two sources, swallowed air (exogenous) and that produced by colonic bacteria (endogenous). Intestinal gas is composed of various amounts of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and methane. Oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide come from swallowed air and hydrogen and methane are by-products of the breakdown of food residue by good microorganisms (probiotics) naturally residing in the colon.

Although less than 1% of gas is odorous, intestinal bacteria produce several sulphur-containing compounds that are the primary smelly culprits along with fatty acids, and indoles, specifically skatole, a product resulting from the breakdown of an amino acid that naturally occurs in mammalian feces. The human nose can detect hydrogen sulphide in concentrations as low as one-half part per billion, so passing even a very small amount of this gas can draw attention!

Sulfur compounds smell like rotten eggs while fatty acids tend to generate a rancid odour and skatole gives off a feces-type aroma. Interestingly, coal tar, beets, orange blossoms, jasmine, and Chinese apple all contain skatole. You might be surprised to learn that your favourite perfume contains this fragrant scent, which is pleasant in small quantities!


Lessening Gas Build-up

“Beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot!” This old playground rhyme is certainly no myth. Beans, as well as lentils, onions, cabbage, sweet potatoes, and a variety of other vegetables contain a type of carbohydrate called oligosaccharide, which the human body doesn’t naturally digest. Fortunately, multitudes of microorganisms that inhabit our colons find these vegetable components delicious. The downside is that these millions of bacteria and yeasts create gas when they digest the fibre.

Another cause of endogenous gas is lactose, the type of sugar found in dairy products. If your body doesn’t create enough lactase, the enzyme needed to digest the lactose, as is the case for a whopping 70% of adults, to varying degrees, it adds to the buffet for the microorganisms.

To prevent some of these gases from building up, you could try taking enzymes before eating the offending foods. You can find the following brands in pill form over-the-counter at most drug and health food stores: Beano®, Digesta®, and Lactaid®. Be sure to ask your pharmacist for advice, as these products work with different foods.

Even with enzymes, however, you still may not be in the clear. Some of our flatus comes from the air we swallow. Certain eating habits such as chewing gum, eating too quickly, drinking liquids with food, sipping hot beverages, or drinking through a straw can cause you to ingest excess gas. Other contributing factors include poorly fitting dentures, a chronic post-nasal discharge, chronic pain, smoking, and anxiety or tension.

Expelling gas, cutting the cheese, or farting, no matter what you call it, is very normal and part of a healthy digestive tract. It is important to let it out when you feel the need. Go ahead and excuse yourself, if you still feel social pressure, just don’t hold it in for too long! When gas stays trapped in your intestine, it can cause discomfort and pain.

Maybe one day the taboo on flatus will pass, as people realize it is a necessary unavoidable body function. Until then, stay strong and let it pass when you need to!

First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 173 – 2009