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.
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.
- As long as you don't eat olestra together with carotenoid-rich foods, there's no problem.
"You don't eat carrot sticks with potato chips," P&G apologists are fond of saying. They point
out that olestra washes more carotenoids out of the body when both are eaten at the same meal.
True. But millions of people eat potato chips with their sandwiches or crackers with their soup.
If those foods contain (lycopene-rich) tomatoes, (lutein-rich) romaine lettuce, or
(beta-carotene-rich) carrots, for example, olestra will drag the carotenoids out of the body.
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."
- There's no proof that carotenoids do us any good. High-dose beta-carotene pills have clearly
failed to prevent lung cancer in smokers. But "over fifty studies have found, with remarkable
consistency, that diets rich in carotenoids are associated with lower risk of cancer at many sites,"
wrote Harvard University researchers Walter Willett and Meir Stampfer in a November 1995
letter to FDA commissioner David Kessler.
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."
- After four weeks of eating just three grams a day of olestra (what you'd get in about six chips)
with dinner, volunteers in a Dutch study had 40 percent less lycopene in their blood than people
who ate olestra-less food. Lycopene--a carotenoid that's found largely in tomatoes--is a powerful
antioxidant that's been linked to a lower risk of prostate cancer.
"Anything that lowers blood levels of lutein/zeaxanthin may contribute to this serious cause of
blindness," point out Willett and Stampfer.
- Eating eight grams a day of olestra--about 16 chips--with meals for two weeks led to a 20
percent drop in lutein levels in the blood of volunteers, according to P&G's own study. Lutein,
along with its close cousin zeaxanthin, is found in green leafy vegetables like spinach. In 1994,
Johanna Seddon and colleagues at Harvard University reported that people with low levels of
lutein and zeaxanthin in their blood had a 43 percent higher risk of macular degeneration -- an
irreversible deterioration of the retina.
- Olestra will be used only in a few snack foods, so it won't have that great an impact. Olestra
is the only fat substitute that can be used at high temperatures. So if the FDA ever expands its
approval to cover deep-fried foods like french fries, all bets are off. Fast food fans--many of them
youngsters--aren't exactly the world's best fruit-and-vegetable eaters, so they probably start out
with low levels of carotenoids in their blood. Anything that depletes them even further could be
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.
- If carotenoids turn out to be important, olestra can be fortified with them later. P&G is
already adding vitamins A, D, E, and K to olestra. Why? Because they're fat-soluble, and olestra
appears to rob the body of anything that dissolves in fat.
"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
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.
- Olestra only causes digestive problems when eaten to excess. About a third of the volunteers
in P&G's own studies got diarrhea when they ate 20 grams of olestra a day. That's about how
much you'd get in a two-ounce single-serving bag of potato chips. And in one study, levels of
diarrhea were even troublesome when people ate just eight grams (16 chips) a day.
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."
- Olestra's digestive discomfort is no worse than that caused by eating a high-fiber diet.
When people switch to a high-fiber diet, they often experience gas, bloating, and cramps. But the
symptoms usually subside within several days, after "good" bacteria in the gut adapt to the extra
fiber. With olestra, the only way to end your tummy troubles is to stop eating the stuff.
"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
- Olestra will help people lose weight. While snacks made with it will be lower in calories, it
won't mean a thing to the national waistline if people end up eating more chips and other snacks.
And they will, if our experience with sugar substitutes is any guide. Following the explosion of
artificially sweetened foods in the 1980s, sugar consumption actually rose . . and obesity rates
jumped by 30 percent.
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.