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Olestra prompts a fat-free food fight


October 1, 1996
Web posted at: 4:30 a.m. EDT

From Correspondent Ed Garsten

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CNN) -- A food fight with national visibility is under way as a consumer watchdog group and a consumer products giant duke it out over the fat substitute Olestra.

On one side is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which claims Olestra -- trade name Olean -- disrupts some people's digestive tracts.


"Columbus is about to become the diarrhea capitol of the nation," warns Dr. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington, D.C., organization.

But Olean's developer, Proctor & Gamble, argues the product poses no health threat.

"What's clear from extensive research is that most people do not get digestive changes from eating Olean snacks," says Dr. Greg Allgood, a Proctor & Gamble scientist.

The two groups are butting heads in Columbus over Proctor & Gamble's $1 million test launch of Fat-Free Pringles potato chips, made with Olean.


The test comes on the heels of Food and Drug Administration approval of Olestra after 25 years of review.

"This is the biggest launch we've ever had in Pringles history," says an enthusiastic Casey Keller, Pringles brand manager.

Olean is the latest in a long line of products aimed at people who love the taste of fat but don't want the clogged arteries and extra inches that usually accompany a high-fat diet.

What makes Olean stand out is that it possesses all the properties of fat but is designed in such a way that the body can't break down and absorb them. Presto, no fat -- and just 79 calories per serving.

As Olean passes through the body, however, beneficial fat-soluble vitamins and carotinoids may attach to the Olean and also pass through unabsorbed. And there is the always unpleasant possibility of the "anal leakage" allegedly caused by the fat substitute.

CSPI wants Proctor & Gamble to pull its ads and products from the market.

A CSPI television ad notes the FDA requires a label on all Olean-based products warning the fat substitute "may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools." An announcer asks rhetorically, "If you saw that, would you give it to your dog?"

But Proctor & Gamble claims the consumer group is needlessly scaring people with the warnings.

"The power of suggestion is very strong, we learned from lots of research," says Allgood. "And if the CSPI group is telling people they're going to have symptoms, and then they see a label that tells them they might have symptoms, they may experience real symptoms. But they're not due to Olean."


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