Throwing more facts into fat-free fire

Eating Well

July 09, 1996|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Olean, aka Olestra, the nonfat fat currently being test-marketed in several areas of the country, is causing a stir in Washington. Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to withdraw its recent approval and get Olean-fried products off the market.

What's all the fuss about?

Indigestible Olestra was accidentally discovered by Procter & Gamble (P&G) scientists in the 1960s while hunting for easily digestible fats for premature infants. Instead, they found a fat-sugar molecule so slick, it passed right through digestive systems without being absorbed. Research subjects got no calories or fat while eating greasy chips and rich chocolatey frosting.

What a promising development for a nation where fat consumption was fast becoming a health risk.

But there is no free lunch. Original Olestra went rocketing through intestinal tracts, producing gas, diarrhea and "anal leakage." And it took fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as beta carotene, along with it.

What a revolting development!

P&G has since spent 25 years and untold fortunes chemically reformulating Olean, then testing, testing, testing in 150 long- and short-term studies involving 8,000 men, women and children. Now most of the kinks have been worked out. The gastrointestinal effects have been minimized so most people could eat reasonable portions without symptoms.

Last year, FDA approved Olean for limited use in savory snacks like chips and cheese curls. But Olean-fried products must carry warning label that they may cause gastrointestinal distress similar to the effect of eating beans, broccoli, or other high-fiber foods. Also, manufacturers must add fat soluble vitamins to products made with Olean to make up for the vitamins that will be lost trying to digest the indigestible. And beta carotene will go unreplaced.

All this could turn out to be OK, and help reduce total dietary fat if (it's a big if), people use snack foods in small portions to enhance the satisfaction of an otherwise well-balanced and healthy diet.

According to P&G, Americans eat more than 5.5 billion pounds of salty snacks and crackers each year, or about 22 pounds per person. Presumably most of those are high in fat. And studies show many people find it hard to stick to a low-fat diet, especially when they have to give up there favorite treat foods. Since high fat diets are linked to higher rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, one would predict that substituting tasty snacks that act fat-free would make us all healthier.

But hundreds of studies show a strong link between eating more fruits and vegetables and lower rates of cancer and heart diseases. Would people eating fat-free cheese curls actually make up the missing calories by eating carrots and broccoli? That would be good, because they'd be getting lots of beta carotene to replace what the cheese curls swept away.

Or would they eat bigger portions of fat-free cheese curls? Disappointingly, the surge in sugar replacers in the last 20 years did not dampen America's sweet tooth or produce remarkable weight loss. Quite the opposite. More Americans are obese now than ever before. Why do we think fat replacers are going to work any differently?

How many guys will settle in to watch the World Series with a single portion of cheese curls and a big bowl of raw veggies? More likely, they'll virtuously eat the whole bag of cheese curls. Which will produce even greater beta carotene losses. And which is more healthful, eating less fat no matter what else your diet looks like, or eating more fruits and vegetables?

The bottom line here is that if the FDA continues to stand by its approval of Olean-containing products, they will arrive in your market sometime soon, and you'll get to choose. Will you have a box of SnackWells and a bag of cheese curls for lunch, and rejoice in your low-fat, albeit nutrient-free, diet? Or will you have a sandwich and some veggies along with an ounce of cheese curls and two cookies?

P&G itself says, "Olean is a replacement for fat, not for common sense."

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant at the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 7/09/96

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