Year in review

"Most people do not get digestive changes"

"Columbus is about to become the diarrhea capital of the nation"

When the FDA approved the fat substitute Olestra in January, it appeared to be a triumph for the synthetic chemical's manufacturer and a boon for dieters across the nation. After spending 25 years and $250 million developing Olestra (trade name Olean), Proctor & Gamble could now use the substance to offer weight-conscious Americans fat-free potato chips, tortilla chips, crackers and other salty snacks.

Olestra molecules, made of sugar and vegetable oil, are too big to be digested, so they leave behind no calories. The artificial fat slides through the body without stopping to clog arteries or pad waistlines.

Unfortunately, critics said, it could slide through the body without stopping at all. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) warned of something it referred to as "anal leakage;" the FDA required a label warning of "abdominal cramping and loose stools." A test launch of an Olestra product in Columbus, Ohio, prompted CSPI's executive director to declare, "Columbus is about to become the diarrhea capitol of the nation."

CSPI Olestra commercial -- 869K QuickTime movie

The indelicate concerns prompted a round of jokes on late-night television talk shows and seemed to mute enthusiasm for the product. But a more important concern, hinted at in the FDA warning label, was no laughing matter to nutritionists. The label states that Olestra "inhibits absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients."

Olestra's woes could soon be compounded. Another fat substitute, Z-Trim, is thought to have fewer, if any, side effects. It is expected to receive quick FDA approval and could be competing with Olestra on store shelves in 1997.

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