Olestra Controversy

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on February 5, 1996. Partner content is not updated.

Pass the potato chips. Olestra, a new synthetic food oil with zero calories, is promising to take the fat - and the guilt - out of greasy junk food. "This is something people really want," says Chris Hassall, a senior scientist with Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co.
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on February 5, 1996. Partner content is not updated. Pass the potato chips. Olestra, a new synthetic food oil with zero calories, is promising to take the fat - and the guilt - out of greasy junk food. "This is something people really want," says Chris Hassall, a senior scientist with Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co.


Olestra Controversy

Pass the potato chips. Olestra, a new synthetic food oil with zero calories, is promising to take the fat - and the guilt - out of greasy junk food. "This is something people really want," says Chris Hassall, a senior scientist with Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co., which spent more than 25 years and $275 million developing the fake fat. "Consumer testing tells us they are very excited about the idea of snack foods which deliver the full fat taste but don't have any fat in them." There is a catch, however. While olestra leaves no fatty deposits behind in the body, it soaks up and eliminates essential vitamins and nutrients like a sponge. It may also cause flatulence and diarrhea. But last week, despite strong objections by nutritionists and consumer advocates, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved olestra for use in salty snacks and crackers - provided they carry a label warning consumers of possible digestive upsets.

Procter & Gamble, makers of Pringles potato chips, Duncan Hines cake mixes and a variety of soap products, plans to test-market its fake fat in the coming months and to sell olestra to rival snack-makers. And although so far olestra is only approved for limited use, P & G believes that sucrose polyester, as it is formally known, has the potential to replace any kind of fat - meaning it could eventually be ubiquitous in the United States. In Ottawa, a spokesman for the Health Protection Branch said that a decision on whether olestra will be approved in Canada is months away. But some Canadian nutritionists are already sounding the alarm. "I hope we won't see olestra in Canada," says Bruce Holub, a professor of nutritional sciences at Ontario's University of Guelph. "I have serious concerns about allowing a plastic fat into the human food supply."

Unlike other fat substitutes, olestra can withstand the high temperatures needed to fry foods. It is made from two familiar ingredients - sugar and vegetable oil. Created by accident in a company lab in the late 1960s, it looks and tastes like natural fat. The difference is in the chemistry. Most regular fats are triglycerides, made from an alcohol, or glycerol, molecule attached to three fatty acids. In olestra, the glycerol is replaced by a sugar, or sucrose, molecule, and up to eight fatty acids. "The fatty acids give olestra its taste, texture and mouth feel," Hassall says. But because the synthetic molecule is much bigger than an ordinary fat molecule, the body cannot digest it.

Nor does the body get the benefit of certain nutrients from food consumed at the same time as olestra. One of the roles of fat in the diet is to absorb vitamins and transport them into the blood. But because olestra is not digested, the vitamins it absorbs are eliminated. "At snack food levels, the effect is very small," notes Hassall. "We intend to add small amounts of vitamins A, D, E and K to offset any effect." But the company has no plans to replace beta-carotene and other so-called carotenoids - found in fruits and vegetables and believed to fight cancer and other diseases - which are lost in the same way.

Some nutrition experts are outraged that the company is ignoring concerns about the loss of beta-carotene. They point to a recent study in Holland that shows that as little as three grams of olestra a day led to major drops in the blood levels of beta-carotene and other anti-oxidants. "Just six potato chips a day can reduce carotenoids by about 40 per cent," contends Dr. Walter Willett, a nutritionist at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Based on that amount of beta-carotene reduction caused by olestra," Willett says, "there would likely be thousands of premature deaths due to cancer and cardiovascular disease in the United States annually."

But the company argues that more than 150 studies involving more than 8,000 people show that olestra is safe. "For a new food additive there is no requirement for testing on people," states Hassall. "We went beyond that and did a lot of testing on people." But critics claim that the studies are inadequate. "Procter & Gamble wants the public to be human guinea pigs," says Willett. "They have never done studies in humans beyond a few weeks and effects would likely show up over decades." In fact, the FDA, as a condition of approval, is requiring P & G to continue studies on olestra consumption.

Harvey Anderson, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto who has worked as a P & G consultant, takes a more benign view of olestra. "If you eat a small serving of olestra potato chips," he says, "it will be neither here nor there." And, he notes, because olestra can trigger loose bowels, it has a built-in defence against over-consumption. "If you overdosed," he says, "there would be relatively quick feedback from the old digestive system."

Maclean's February 5, 1996