March 1996

Olestra: Procter's Big Gamble

By Myra Karstadt & Stephen Schmidt.


It's every dieter's dream: potato chips and other greasy snacks that won't make you fat.

It's every public health expert's nightmare: an uncontrolled experiment on 200 million people using an unsafe food additive.

It's the new fat substitute olestra.

Last January, when the Food and Drug Administration gave consumer products giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) the go-ahead to start using olestra in potato chips, tortilla chips, and crackers, it did so over the opposition of dozens of public health and nutrition experts.

The fake fat, they argued, robs the body of carotenoids. Those pigments give many fruits and vegetables their orange, yellow, or green colors and may help explain why diets high in fruits and vegetables seem to protect against cancer, heart disease, stroke, and blindness.

The FDA rejected concerns about olestra's impact on life-threatening illnesses, but the feds did require that foods made with it carry a warning--at least about "loose stools" and "abdominal cramping." Ironically, olestra's tendency to wreak havoc on your gut may be the best thing about it . . . if it discourages would-be eaters.

Olean--that's olestra's trade name--could be in Pringles and other foods by this summer. Frito-Lay has already started test marketing products containing olean in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Grand Junction, Colorado. Lay's MAX, Doritos MAX, and Tostitos MAX are one sale in those three cities.

So you've only got a few months to decide who to believe: the independent researchers who have spoken out passionately against the fake fat or the paid-consultant scientists that P&G has trotted out to defend its $200 million gamble? Here are the main arguments for olestra . . . and the reasons they're flawed.

Carotenoids

And then there are the millions who snack on chips between meals. If P&G's results on certain vitamins are any guide, between-meal snacking may wash away up to a third of the carotenoids from a previous--or subsequent--meal.

Nor does the beta-carotene failure mean that it's safe to deplete people of carotenoids. "There is a causal relationship between the ingestion of fruits and vegetables and decreased risk of various cancers and other degenerative diseases," says Norman Krinsky, a carotenoid expert at Tufts University. "Depletion of carotenoids may be accompanied by depletion of those factors in fruit-and-vegetable diets that are protective."

So even though there is no absolute proof that carotenoids prevent cancer and other diseases, it's foolhardy to add something to the food supply that steals carotenoids from the body.

And olestra is one accomplished thief.

"I am seriously concerned about anything that would make the carotenoids and related phytochemicals in vegetables and fruits less available and effective," says Regina Ziegler, a nutritional epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute. "Olestra, even if consumed in limited quantities, seems to have that potential."

"Anything that lowers blood levels of lutein/zeaxanthin may contribute to this serious cause of blindness," point out Willett and Stampfer.

So even if P&G later decides to add carotenoids to olestra, how would it replace the dizzying array of promising phytochemicals that scientists are only just now beginning to discover in fruits and vegetables? Many will be washed out of the body by olestra.

"The first law of tinkering is that you save all the parts," says consumer activist and former Columbia University professor Joan Gussow, who was one of only five members of the FDA's food advisory committee to vote against olestra's approval last November. "With carotenoids and other phytochemicals, we don't even know what the parts are, let alone how much would be needed to restore the status quo to olestra."

What's more, by the time P&G adds carotenoids and phytochemicals, it may be too late. "The odds are that olestra's adverse consequences would not be detectable for at least several decades, during which time enormous harm could have been done," contend Harvard's Walter Willett and Meir Stampfer.

Olestra & the Gut

Diarrhea wasn't the only trouble. Since olestra isn't absorbed as it travels through the gut, it can leave the body as a greasy liquid. P&G claims that this "anal leakage" problem has been solved by a new, "stiffer" version of olestra, but the company's own data show that it's not so.

What's more, people who ate moderate amounts of olestra also had to contend with stained underwear from "greasy feces." That gives a whole new meaning to the term "snack attack."

"It is quite analogous to the cigarette smoker who, when offered 'low-nicotine' cigarettes, just smokes more of them," explains researcher Daniel Steinberg of the University of California, San Diego.


NOTES

Procter & Gamble needs to recoup more than $200 million it invested in the fake fat, so look for a push to expand approval to cover ice cream, peanut butter, and deep-fried and other foods.

If it dissolves in fat, olestra will almost certainly carry it out of the body. That includes carotenoids like lycopene and lutein, substances that may explain why people who eat diets rich in fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and blindness.