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Olestra ... Debating Knee-Deep In Billion Dollar Bills

--by Susan O. Henry

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After more than a year of test marketing to thousands of repeat buyers, olestra made its appearance in stores. But not without a lot of hand-wringing and angst.

Olestra is the fake fat made from sugar and vegetable oil. Its marketing hook is that it has about the same taste and texture as real fat but it delivers no calories. Its molecules are too large to digest, so it passes through the body unabsorbed. The downside of that non-absorption is that “olestra gives people stomach cramps and diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems in far larger numbers than the company acknowledges. The FDA staff blew it” when “they ignored the studies” about olestra and allowed the product to be marketed, says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science and the Public Interest. The CSPI, a non-profit organization which could be described as a public health watchdog, has been devotedly outspoken against olestra.

The FDA didn’t really ignore the evidence, however. It requires products made with olestra to include a warning label saying it may cause “abdominal cramping and loose stools.”

Not so, says research from Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. “Potato chips made with olestra don’t cause any more digestive problems than regular- fat chips,” says the Johns Hopkins study report. In a study of 1,100 chip eaters conducted by Lawrence Cheskin, M.D., who directs Bayview’s division of digestive diseases and its Weight Management Center, half the snackers ate chips fried in olestra, while half munched regular-fat chips.

“Nearly 16 percent who ate the olestra chips reported gastrointestinal symptoms. However, nearly 18 percent said they had symptoms after eating regular-fat chips.” All the study does, concludes Dr. Chelskin, is “confirm that digestive symptoms are common in the general population, with more than two-thirds of adults reporting them during a three-month period” whether they eat chips or not.

Dr. Cheskin’s study was credible enough to be published in the Jan. 14 Journal of the American Medical Association, but not credible enough for CSPI. Calling the study “misleading junk science that appears to have been carefully designed not to find a problem,” the CSPI executive director notes that the Cheskin study was funded by Procter and Gamble, which will roll out its olestrafied Fat-Free Pringles potato chips in March — and that Dr. Cheskin’s other job is being a paid consultant to P & G.

Johns Hopkins does acknowledge the triunal relationship, however. Its study report concludes: “Funding for this study was provided by Procter and Gamble Corporation. Dr. Cheskin is a consultant to P & G. The terms of this arrangement are being managed by the Johns Hopkins University in accordance with its conflict of interest policies.”

But the biggest bone of olestra contention isn’t the gastrointestinal thing. The greater problem, which isn’t even addressed in the P&G/JHU study, is that olestra interferes with the absorption of carotenoids, writes Walter Willet, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. (Dr. Willet was a leading researcher in the Harvard Nurses Study, which concluded that milk does not protect against osteoporosis.) Just as we have realized the importance of carotenoids in protecting against heart attack, stroke, cancer, and eye diseases, and have upped the recommended daily doses of vitamins A, C, and E, along comes a sure-to-be popular product that negates those elements. Says CSPI, people “shouldn’t have to play Russian roulette when they break open a bag of chips.”

Frito-Lay brought its olestra-containing Ruffles and Doritos to stores in February. Procter & Gamble will put Pringles and other munchies on the shelves “by the end of March.”

Chips Into Blue Chips

If you think the products are stirring the health stew, check the financial pages. Stock market reporters gleefully quote P & G CEO John Pepper saying he "expects (his company’s brand-name) Olean to bring in $400 million the first year." Together, P & G and Frito-Lay expect to rake in a billion dollars in sales per annum. P & G spent nearly $500 million developing the fat substitute, and the two companies together have sunk $200 million constructing an olestra-making plant in Cincinnati.

Yankee Ingenuity and American Entrepreneurship and Capitalistic Opportunism will surely, in the end, prevail. It shouldn’t be long at all before we find an assortment of New!! Essential!! Vitamin And Mineral Restoration Compounds to replace precious nutrients fat-free fat steals from you. Could be another billion-buck-a-year enterprise.

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