The Battle over the Battle of the Bulge

Friday, October 30, 1998

Even as a nation of overeaters, most Americans are concerned about the health effects of too much fat. We cling to the hope that we can somehow have it both ways: eat chips and ice cream but not suffer the consequences. Finally, there’s good news. And bad news.

The good news is that there is a new and formidable weapon in the war against dietary fat—a cooking oil called olestra, which adds no fat or calories to food. (Simply a molecule of table sugar linked to soybean or cottonseed oil, it is too large for the body to absorb or digest.) After analyzing copious data, consulting outside experts, and becoming convinced of the product’s safety, the FDA approved Procter and Gamble’s olestra for use in chips, crackers, and other “savory snacks” in 1996. Snacks fried with olestra and produced by about a dozen companies are currently hitting store shelves nationwide.

Olestra is a potential boon to public health in the United States, where one person in three is obese, diets are dominated by fat, and three of the top four of Americans’ biggest health concerns—heart disease, cancer, and elevated blood cholesterol—are related to fat consumption. Olestra can help to lower the proportion of fat and saturated fat, as well as cut calories, in the diet.

The scientific data argue compellingly for the safety of olestra, the most tested food substance in history. Over the past twenty-five years, there have been more than 150 animal studies and ninety-eight human clinical trials involving more than twenty thousand adults and children.

In test marketing, snacks cooked in olestra have been a monumental success: more than 28 million servings have been sold, many to repeat customers.

While olestra causes mild gastrointestinal symptoms in a small number of consumers, the frequency is no greater than with regular, full-fat chips. A large clinical study conducted in 1996 by Johns Hopkins University researchers, for example, showed no statistically significant differences in reports of digestive symptoms in one thousand moviegoers who consumed either olestra-cooked potato chips or full-fat chips (without knowing which they were eating). And like the rest of us, these test subjects didn’t eat just one: Median chip consumption was greater than two ounces for both groups, and more than a quarter of the test subjects ate more than four ounces of chips. (The typical single-serving bag of chips is about one ounce.) This definitive study was peer reviewed before being published in January 1998 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The bad news is that, so far, we can get olestra only in salted snacks. The FDA has declined even to consider applications for wider approval, although olestra is uniquely versatile in that it can be used instead of margarine, lard, butter, and other oils in frying, baking, and sauteing. It can be used in bread, prepared rice and potato dishes, sauces, chips, and candy. It’s odorless and tasteless.

And consider that four of the top five lunch/dinner entrées consumed in American homes in 1996 could be made lower in fat with olestra: pizza (no. 1) could be made with olestra oil; ham and turkey sandwiches (nos. 2 and 5, respectively) could be made with olestra-containing mayonnaise; peanut butter (in a sandwich, no. 3) could be made with olestra substituted for peanut oil; and hot dogs (no. 4) could contain leaner meat, with olestra added for the satisfying “mouthfeel” of fat.

In the United States, one person in three is obese, diets are dominated by fat, and three of the top four of America’s biggest health concerns—heart disease, cancer, and elevated blood cholesterol—are related to fat consumption.

As soon as possible, consumers should be allowed access to a broader spectrum of olestra foods. Widespread use of olestra could enable more Americans to adhere to the American Heart Association’s recommendation to consume less than 30 percent of total calories from fat. In public health impact, olestra in our diets could be tantamount to the recognition that lowering blood pressure reduces heart disease and stroke. (During just the past two years, if the people in the test markets had chosen to eat regular, full-fat chips instead of olestra-cooked chips, they would have consumed more than 2 billion additional calories and nearly 300 tons of fat.)

As a solution to Americans’ constantly expanding waistlines and fat consumption, olestra is the closest thing to a free lunch.