Besides improving what he calls the "social-behavior status" of beans, the project could lead to products that provide high protein and fiber without producing intestinal gas.
Chang, a researcher at North Dakota State University, has kept a sense of humor about his work.
"As a researcher, when people ask what we do and we say 'beans,' people start to laugh," he said.
Flatulence science, as Chang explains it, works like this: Beans contain sugars called raffinose oligosaccharides, which cannot be broken down by human enzymes. The molecules survive the digestive tract until they reach the large intestine, where they fall prey to bacteria that ferment them.
The process produces gases — methane, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The result, embarrassing for adults, can be painful for infants, eliminating otherwise healthful beans as an ingredient in baby food. Solving the problem could boost demand for beans in both adult and baby foods.
To do that, the NDSU project will add enzymes that can attack the flatulence sugars while ground pinto beans are dehydrated.
Success will be measured by testing the reconstituted product for flatulence sugars, while its consistency and appearance will be compared to an untreated mix. Different enzymes will be studied to find the best and cheapest process.
"We just need to find suitable, optimal conditions for them to work," Chang said.
He estimates the study will take at least two years. The Minnesota-based Northarvest Bean Growers Association gave about $17,000 to cover a graduate student's pay for one year, and may contribute more as the project goes forward, said the association's executive vice president, Tim Courneya.
Chang said a food-processing company is already interested in the research. It won't involve whole beans, which can lose flavor when the sugars are leached from them, he said.
The bean project is far from Chang's only work. During 18 years at the university, he has studied dry beans, soybeans, carrots, sugar beets and sunflowers, trying to maximize their beneficial attributes and find new uses for their byproducts.
He also is leading the creation of a state value-added processing center at NDSU, which will aim to marry university research with food processors looking to find new uses for commodities produced in the state.
Courneya said Chang's bean research, if successful, could allow his growers' group to sell to food companies that now pass over beans for less gastrointestinally problematic commodities.
But he wasn't sure how low-flatulence beans would translate into the marketplace.
"How it would be labeled on a can," Courneya said with a laugh, "I don't know."
By Jack Sullivan