Nutrition Action Healthletter
October 1999 — U.S. Edition

Michael Jacobson.
 Sorbitol Loser

“Excess consumption may have a laxative effect.” If you’ve ever noticed that warning on a food label, you might have wondered just how much makes an “excess,” and which ingredient is the culprit.

   In September, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)—which publishes Nutrition Action Healthletter—asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to improve the warning, which the agency now requires on some foods that contain the sugar alcohol sorbitol. Sorbitol is often added to sugar-free or “dietetic” candies, cake mixes, and similar foods because, compared to regular sugars, it has fewer calories (since it is poorly absorbed) and is less likely to cause cavities.

   But the FDA requires the “laxative” warning only if the food is likely to be eaten in quantities that would provide 50 grams of sorbitol at a sitting. That’s far too high, especially for young children, who could get diarrhea from less than ten grams.

   The bottom line: Any food with at least one gram of sorbitol should carry an informative warning. One possibility: “This product contains sorbitol, which may cause diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal pain; not suitable for consumption by children.”

Similar rules should apply to mannitol, a close relative of sorbitol.

If you think you’ve been affected by sorbitol or mannitol, please write to
CSPI — Sorbitol, Suite 300, 1875 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009.

Potassium bromate is an additive used to strengthen bread dough. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has known since 1982 that it can cause tumors of the kidney, thyroid, and other organs in animals. In July, CSPI petitioned the FDA to ban bromate.

   “In 1992 and again in 1998, the FDA found baked goods that had bromate at levels the agency considers unsafe,” said CSPI attorney Darren Mitchell. “But instead of banning the additive, as the United Kingdom and Canada have done, the FDA has tried—with only partial success—to get bakers to voluntarily stop using it.”

   To avoid packaged foods that contain bromate, look for “potassium bromate” or “bromated flour” in the ingredient list. Some brands that still use it: Home Pride, Martin’s, Schmidt, Sunbeam, TastyKake, Wonder, and Boston Market (in its French sandwich bread).

Sales of Frito-Lay’s Wow chips—which are made with Procter & Gamble’s fake fat olestra—were down by more than 40 percent in June, compared to the previous June.

   What caused the slump? Olestra (brand name: Olean) tends to make people sick. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has received more than 18,000 adverse-reaction reports from people who have eaten olestra-containing foods. That’s more than for all other additives combined.

   As a result of angry customers, disastrous publicity (including CSPI’s campaign to discourage people from eating foods made with olestra), and depressed sales, P&G says that it no longer plans to seek FDA approval to use olestra in foods other than snacks. That’s good news for consumers.

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