A new research discipline, flatology, is opening up after the invention of a device that measures the volume and contents of flatulence. The gadget will help in the study of everything from irritable bowel syndrome to breeding non-gas producing beans.
The device, which has a patent pending, slots into the rectum. Protruding from it is a tube that leads to a balloon which can be kept in a shirt pocket, a conference on food quality heard this week.
Colin Leakey, inventor of the device, and a former academic who runs Peas and Beans Ltd, said: "Medical science can measure almost anything about you at the drop of a hat but there's no objective method of assessing gases."
His catheter slots into the anus, in the groove between the two rings of muscle there. It forms a gas-tight seal and cannot be felt by the wearer once it is in place, he says.
A group of volunteers is testing it at Sheffield Hallam Hospital.
Dr Leakey, who spoke at Agri-Food Quality '95, held at the University of East Anglia this week, invented the catheter to help his research into breeding non-gas producing beans.
"The food industry is realising that their market for high dietary fibre beans may be limited by consumer disatisfaction with the reaction they cause," he said.
So far, he has bred such a bean that is on sale in some French supermarkets. This breakthrough was based on earlier work in Chile, where he noticed that local marketers appeared to have selectively bred such beans for years.
But Dr Leakey is pessimistic about the British. The most commonly eaten bean in Britain is the baked bean, or navy pea bean, 95 per cent of which are produced in North America and Canada.
Scientists believe that polyphenols common in the skins of beans may be the cause of flatulence, particularly a colourless group known as proanthrocyanadins.
There seems to be an association between the colour of a bean and flatulence.
Dr Leakey said of his work: "We have laid the groundwork for the way in which flatology can be conducted."