Olestra: The Fake Fat

The Food and Drug Administration has approved Procter & Gamble’s “fake fat” product, olestra, as an additive to chips and other snack foods.

The substance, unlike other fat substitutes, can withstand high cooking temperatures and can therefore be used to fry chips and other snacks. It is also reported to be able to match the “mouth feel” of fat. Olestra will be marketed under the name Olean and will be used in Pringles potato chips. It will also be tested in some Frito-Lay products.

The FDA’s controversial decision to approve olestra has been bitterly opposed by some in the medical community. Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit advocacy group, calls olestra a “public-health time bomb,” as reported in the Wall Street Journal. Jacobson plans to challenge the FDA’s decision, if necessary, in court.

After an eight-year review, FDA commissioner David Kessler says the calorie-free substance is safe for particular snack foods. All products made with olestra will contain a label warning that fake fat can “inhibit the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients,” including carotenoids such as beta carotene. Procter & Gamble plans to add vitamins A, D, E, and K to the product, but not the carotenoids. Carotenoids are important antioxidants that may help protect the body against cancer and heart disease. Procter & Gamble says olestra’s tendency to deplete the body of vitamins occurs only in “extreme” cases.

Test subjects’ reports of severe abdominal cramping and diarrhea in some people has led to the decision that warning labels will have to be put on foods that contain olestra. This has helped to fuel the opposition to olestra’s approval. Furthermore, according to the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, olestra can cause rectal leakage in some people, visible as yellow/orange stains on underwear.

In a study done by Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, researchers concluded that substituting up to 30 grams in a meal with 45 grams does not cause the intestinal problems reported above. (Note that 45 grams of fat at one meal is equivalent to 405 calories from fat which equals three tablespoons of oil.)

The loss of vitamin K poses problems for people with bleeding disorders, since vitamin K affects blood thinning. Some scientists also worry that the lack of nutrient absorption from the fake fat could lead to an increased risk of cancer. Kessler responds to these claims by affirming that, “if there was (an increased risk of cancer) we wouldn’t have approved it.”

The medical journal Food and Chemical Toxicology reports that in a study conducted by Procter & Gamble (the company that would see the biggest financial gain from olestra’s approval) the substance was found to be neither toxic nor carcinogenic. This statement is based on experiments in which mice were fed the substance as ten percent of their diet for a period of two years. Still, these experiments are not proof and must be examined with caution.

The Associated Press reports that Procter & Gamble is debating where to produce Olean. Procter & Gamble’s existing $160 million, 200 acre complex in Cincinnati is one option, but unless the city gives the company a break on property taxes over ten years, the company may go to Kansas City.

Despite the fact that Proctor & Gamble won the FDA’s approval, the battle over olestra clearly is not over, and neither side appears ready to give up the fight any time soon. But those who put together the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter have already made up their minds. “The world doesn’t need olestra.”

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