CNN Food and Health

Olestra label French fries

Some say fake fat does more harm than good

October 25, 1995
Web posted at: 7 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Eugenia Halsey


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Way back in 1987, the notion of tasty fat-free potato chips, tortilla chips, cakes and French fries was a dieter's dream come true.

That's exactly what Procter & Gamble promised with its new product Olestra, the first artificial no-cal fat substitute that could be used for frying and baking.

But the Food and Drug Administration questioned its safety and for eight years has refused to approve it. Now, however, the FDA is reconsidering whether to allow Olestra's use in potato chips.


The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington consumer group, says the product is still unsafe.

"Rather small amounts, the amount you might get in an ounce or two of potato chips, causes a wide range of gastro-intestinal problems," argues CSPI's Michael Jacobson.

The group says Olestra also can rob the body of nutrients. It says the synthetic Olestra molecule is so large that it isn't absorbed by the body and instead passes right through it, carrying away important nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E, and K. (655K QuickTime movie)

CSPI says while Procter & Gamble is planning to add those vitamins to the chips, there are no plans to replace other nutrients Olestra might deplete, such as the so-called carotenoids found in tomatoes and carrots that may help prevent cancer, strokes, heart disease and blindness.

Walter Willett

Harvard nutrition researcher Walter Willett shares CSPI's concern. Calling Olestra's effect on the body "astonishing," he said a single order of fries can cut carotenoids by half. (179K AIFF sound or 179K WAV sound)

Procter & Gamble denies Olestra is unsafe and says nutrient losses are not unique to their product. For example, the company said, such natural substances as milk or tea can reduce the body's absorption of iron by as much as 60 percent.

The company also says it has modified Olestra so that it causes no more digestive problems than any other snack or food with a lot of fiber.


"What (consumers) can expect is nothing different from when they eat other foods, says Procter & Gamble's Chris Hassall. "And what they'll get is the benefit of less fat because Olestra can replace fat in our favorite snack foods."

Meanwhile, the FDA says it is aware of the consumer group's complaints about Olestra and will review them carefully.

Congress is putting pressure on the FDA to speed up the approval of food additives such as Olestra. But CSPI says the agency should resist because there are now many other fat substitutes available to consumers.

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