Olestra: Fat Substitute Called Unsafe

There’s no such thing as a fat-free lunch. Not yet, anyway.

Olestra is the long-awaited fat substitute manufactured by Procter & Gamble. Submitted to the FDA eight years ago, the substance is being presented to a panel of outside advisors who will determine its safety.

Procter & Gamble claims it has tested olestra on 8,000 people over the course of 25 years and that it is safe. However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says that the substance causes gastrointestinal disturbances, especially diarrhea, which may lead to the depletion of some essential nutrients.

Made from sugar and vegetable oil molecules, the olestra molecule is so large and dense that it cannot be assimilated. Olestra passes through the digestive tract without being broken down, which means the body does not absorb its fat or calories.

Unfortunately, people who consumed olestra in tests had five times as many bouts with diarrhea as those who ate natural fat. But even if the physical discomfort is worth the greasy taste of french fries or the creamy texture of ice cream, the unseen detriments caused by olestra must be considered. CSPI found that consuming the amount of olestra found in just 16 potato chips every day caused a “dramatic depletion” of certain nutrients, especially beta carotene, which is considered vital in the fight against eye disease and cancer.

Vitamins A, D, and K attach themselves to the olestra molecule and pass out of the body. Procter & Gamble proposed adding vitamins to olestra products, but adding vitamin K would endanger the 1.5 million Americans who take blood thinners. Vitamin K, found in leafy green vegetables, diminishes the effectiveness of blood thinners.

Procter & Gamble insists that the detrimental effects of olestra are seen only in people who eat huge quantities of the substance and that the symptoms are no worse than some people experience after eating high-fiber foods. But Michael Jacobson, director of CSPI, said in a letter to the FDA, “We have concluded that olestra’s benefits would be minimal and that it is not safe.”

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