After 2 Years of Market Tests,
Olestra Products Going National

Consumer Advocates Still Concerned About Health Risks

by John Schwartz
Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
The Washington Post (February 11, 1998)

When Linda Blackburn brought home a bag of Doritos made with olestra, she told three of her four children to take it slowly. The Brownsburg, Ind., mother knew that some people experienced stomach problems after eating foods made with the new fat substitute.

They ate a few chips each, but 12-year-old Joshua came home a little later and, unknowing, scarfed down most of the bag. Before long he was in the bathroom with "cramping in his stomach and diarrhea," his mother recalled.

Blackburn continues to buy the product, at least when it's on sale. That's what olestra's maker, consumer giant Procter & Gamble (P&G), is banking on. The company announced yesterday that, after two years of test marketing, P&G and snack maker Frito-Lay are taking chips made with the fat substitute nationwide. They could reach Washington-area shelves within weeks.

Company officials say they hope the fat-free product will revolutionize dieting, and say it might even help America's war on obesity. But consumer advocates and scientists fear that Joshua's story will be repeated millions of times over, with potentially significant health risks in the long term.

"We're barging right ahead into the unknown," said Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "We're asking the nation to participate in a vast uncontrolled experiment without their informed consent."

Marketed under the name "Olean" by its creator, the fat substitute was approved for use in salted snacks by the Food and Drug Administration two years ago. Foods can be fried in the substance, but because it can't be digested it adds no fat or calories. Thus a serving of regular potato chips might contain 10 grams of fat and have 150 calories; chips made with olestra would have no fat and 75 calories.

P&G Chairman John E. Pepper offered broader goals for the ersatz fat in a statement. Noting that his company had created Crisco at the beginning of the century, Pepper said that "A fat-free, calorie-free cooking oil from the makers of Crisco is an even better idea, and snacks are a great place to start."

News reports about olestra have often focused on the gastric distress that the product could cause. Much was made of a side effect, "anal leakage," caused by an earlier version of the product. The company says that a slight change in the formula made for a firmer fat that no longer causes the problem.

The company now touts recent research that appears to show that gastric effects are no worse than those associated with eating other indigestible foods such as bran. On a company-sponsored Web site, however, the company does acknowledge that, since the product can't be absorbed by the body, "It may soften the stool in some people, particularly if eaten in large quantities several days in a row." This leads to another possible inconvenience, delicately termed "fecal urgency," associated with the product.

Although the gastric problems have received the most attention, scientists such as Willett say the products pose a greater long-term risk: The fake fat blocks absorption of some vitamins and nutrients by the body. The nutrients, known as "carotenoids," are found naturally in green and yellow vegetables and may play a role in preventing cancer, strokes, heart attacks and some forms of blindness. "Tinkering" with the delicate balance of nutrition through products such as olestra is "really taking a huge gamble," Willett said.

The company has said that the evidence on carotenoids isn't in yet, and has added some vitamins back into the product. The company points proudly to careful endorsements of the product by such groups as the American Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association.

In approving the product, the FDA required that every bag and can made with it bear a label that reads: "This product contains olestra. Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E and K have been added."

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has vigorously campaigned against olestra, said, "That product should not be in the food supply." CSPI has called olestra "the food industry's version of a fraternity prank."

Ultimately, it will be up to customers to decide whether they want olestra. So far, consumers seem to like the chips, especially compared with other low-fat snacks on the market. Once the fastest-growing segment of the snack food industry, low-fat foods have leveled off at about 11 percent of the overall market, according to the Snack Food Association. Unlike the crispy cardboard flavor of many low-fat chips, olestra goods taste as if they have been fried in a rather heavy oil. P&G said that some 40 percent of consumers in the Indiana market bought the chips again, a better rate than usual for new low-fat snacks.

If Blackburn is any indication, sales will be brisk. After Joshua's bout, the company paid him $150 to take part in a follow-up study in which he was given smaller servings of chips and suffered no ill effects.

Blackburn, a self-described "conservative who wants to keep government small and our freedoms intact," said she wasn't sure about the long-term effects. But the 45-year-old speaks with absolute certainty about the sort of short-term woes her son suffered:

"If it causes you problems, you don't have to buy it. It's a free country."

Material presented on this home page constitutes opinion of the author.
Copyright © 1998 Steven J. Milloy. All rights reserved. Site developed and hosted by WestLake Solutions, Inc.