Chapter 6

St. Francis Prep.

Nutrition - Mrs. Turner

Snack Attack Olestra

by Michael Jacobson & Leila Corcoran

Nutrition Action Health Letter March 1998

One night in the fall of 1996, 49-year-old Jean Medonic of Marion, Iowa, tried some potato chips made with the fat substitute olestra as she watched the 10 o'clock news.


"Normally I can eat anything without becoming sick," she says.

An hour after turning in, she suffered gas pains "so sharp and of such a magnitude that I would say it was almost like the beginning of labor."

The pain finally subsided...just before the waves of diarrhea hit. She says she was severely ill for 13 or 14 hours.

Medonic is one of thousands of people who appear to have
had messy run-ins with olestra, a fake fat that's touted as a way to help you stay slim and cut your risk of heart disease. While there's no direct evidence that it can do either, there is a chance that it will send some people scooting for the nearest bath- room. It will also flush out of your body substances that could help protect you against cancer, heart disease, and blindness.

Until now, the problem has been confined to central Indiana, the Columbus (Ohio) area, and three other cities where olestra chips and crackers have been test-marketed.

By the end of March, though, foods made with olestra may be staring you in the face at your local supermarket. That's when Frito-Lay plans to start selling its WOW brand of olestra-containing Lay's, Ruffles, and Doritos nationwide. It's licensing the use of olestra-under the trade name Olean-from consumer products giant Procter & Gamble.

P&G says that its own Fat Free Pringles, which are still being test-marketed, will go national later this year. Products by Nabisco (it's test- marketing Wheat Thins and Ritz crackers made with olestra) and other companies may follow.

Bad Dream
At first blush, olestra sounds like a dieter's dream. While it tastes like fat, its molecules are too big for the body to digest. So they leave no calories behind as they pass straight through the digestive tract.

Presto! Rich-tasting junk food that doesn't go to your hips. An ounce of potato chips (about 18) made with olestra, for example, has no fat and just 75 calories (all from the potato), compared to 10 grams of fat and 150 calories in an ounce of regular chips.

But passing through the digestive tract unabsorbed has a downside. In some people,olestra acts as a laxative.

What's more, as it journeys through the gut, olestra snares fat- soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) from any foods that may be there and drags them out of the body. Ditto for carotenoids, which may help prevent disease. The Food and Drug Administration requires Procter & Gamble to fortify olestra with the four vitamins to help compensate for the losses. But it doesn't make the company add back any carotenoids. And that's a problem.

"Olestra has the potential to do significant harm," says Ernst Schaefer of the Jean Mayer U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.

A Big Experiment
P&G researchers developed olestra in 1968. They were looking for something to provide extra calories to premature babies (a dead end, as it turned out). It's made by chemically combining sugar with the fatty acids obtained from vegetable oils.

In November 1995, an FDA advisory panel voted 17 to 5 to approve olestra. The committee-which didn't include a single expert on carotenoids-was stacked in favor of P&G. At least nine of the 17 yea votes came from food industry consultants.


"The olestra meetings carried the sense of a fait accompli, or at least a juggernaut moving inevitably toward FDA approval,"

wrote Henry Blackburn of the University' of Minnesota School of Public Health in the New England Journal of Medicine.


"The FDA staff members had already concluded that olestra was safe and were acting as proponents.,."

wrote Blackburn, one of the five panel members who voted against approval.

In january 1996 P&G got the FDA's go-ahead to sell olestra for use in "savory snacks" like potato chips, tortilla chips, and crackers. The feds' only concession to safety concerns: All olestra products must carry a label: notice that warns of "abdominal cramping" and "loose stools." It also warns that olestra "inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients" (see example below).

This Product Contains Olestra. Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E, and K have been added.

Olean is registered trademark of the Proctor & Gamble Company

The FDA requires snack food manufacturers to put
this warning on either the front or the back of their packages. Guess which side they print It an?


"I don't think the adverse health effects of olestra were given a reasonable public hearing,"

says Ian Greaves of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.


"It was a triumph of marketing over health concerns. The marketing people out-shouted the health people."

Counting Carotenoids
Carotenoids are the plant pigments that make fruits and vegetables red, yellow, or orange. They're also found in green leafy vegetables.


"There are dozens of studies indicating that carotenoids protect
against cancer, heart disease, and macular degeneration, the most common form of blindness that strikes the elderly,"

says Walter Willett, head of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health.

And olestra and carotenoids don't mix:

  • In two 1993 P&G studies, 39 people who ate eight grams a day of olestra-the equivalent of 16 chips- with meals for eight weeks had a 50 percent drop in their total blood carotenoids.
  • In 1995, researchers at Unilever, a Dutch company that was considering manufacturing its own form of olestra, gave 53 men and women margarine containing three grams of olestra a day-about six chips' worth-with their main meal. After four weeks, the volunteers had 40 percent less lycopene in their blood. Lycopene is a carotenoid found largely in tomatoes. Men who eat more appear to have a lower risk of prostate cancer.

In January 1996, Willett and Harvard colleague Meir Stampfer estimated that olestra's Widespread use in snack foods woul

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