Even as a nation of over-eaters, most Americans are concerned about the health effects of too much fat. We cling to the hope that we can have it both ways: eat chips and ice cream but not suffer the consequences. Finally, there's good news - and bad news.
The good news is that there is a new and formidable weapon in the war against dietary fat - a cooking oil called olestra, which adds no fat or calories to food. (Simply a molecule of table sugar linked to soybean or cottonseed oil, it is too large for the body to absorb or digest.) After analyzing copious data, consulting outside experts and becoming convinced of the product's safety, the FDA approved Procter and Gamble's olestra for use in chips, crackers and other "savory snacks" in 1996. Snacks fried with olestra and produced by about a dozen companies will be available nationwide by the summer.
Olestra is a potential boon to public health in the United States, where one person in three is obese, diets are dominated by fat and three of the top four of Americans' biggest health concerns heart disease, cancer and elevated blood cholesterol - are related to fat consumption. Olestra can help to lower the proportion of fat and saturated fat, as well as cut calories, in the diet.
The scientific data argue compellingly for the safety of olestra, the most tested food substance in history. Over the past 25 years, there have been more than 150 animal studies and 98 human clinical trials involving more than 20,000 adults and children.
In test marketing, snacks cooked in olestra have been a monumental success: more than 28 million servings have been sold, many to repeat customers.
While olestra causes mild gastrointestinal symptoms in a small number of consumers, the frequency is no greater than with regular, full-fat chips. A large clinical study conducted in 1996 by Johns Hopkins University researchers, for example, showed no statistically significant differences in reports of digestive symptoms in 1,000 moviegoers who consumed either olestra-cooked potato chips or full-fat chips (without knowing which they were eating). And like the rest of us, these test subjects didn't eat just one: median chip consumption was greater than two ounces for both groups, and more than a quarter of the test subjects ate more than four ounces of chips. (The typical single-serving bag of chips is about one ounce.) This definitive study was peer-reviewed before being published in January 1998 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The bad news is that, so far, we can get olestra only in salted snacks. The FDA declined even to consider applications for wider approval, although olestra is uniquely versatile in that it can be used instead of margarine, lard, butter, and other oils in frying, baking, and sauteing. It can be used in bread, prepared rice and potato dishes, sauces, chips and candy. It's odorless and tasteless.
As soon as possible, consumers should be allowed access to a broader spectrum of olestra foods. Widespread use of olestra could enable more Americans to adhere to the American Heart Association's recommendation to consume less than 30 percent of total calories from fat. In public health impact, olestra in our diets could be tantamount to the recognition that lowering blood pressure reduces heart disease and stroke. (During just the past two years, if the people in the test markets had chosen to eat regular, full-fat chips instead of olestra-cooked chips, they would have consumed more than two billion additional calories and nearly 300 tons of fat.)
As a solution to Americans' constantly-expanding waistlines and fat consumption, olestra is the closest thing to a free lunch.
Henry Miller is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author of "Policy Controversy in Biotechnology: An Insider's View.
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