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What About Olestra?
April 18th, 2010

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Dear John,

I’ve heard that Olestra helps people to reduce their intake of fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, and therefore reduces risks for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. That seems like a lot to promise. Is it true?

Juliet

Dear Juliet,

Olestra is Procter and Gamble’s (P&G) fat substitute. Marketed under the brand name Olean, it is actually sucrose polyester, a sugar-based compound that is not digested or absorbed by the human body. The olestra molecule is much larger than natural fats and cannot be broken down by normal digestive processes in the small intestine nor by bacterial digestion in the large intestine. It can’t be absorbed across the intestinal wall nor can it be metabolized in any other way. It just passes through from one end of the digestive tract to the other. However, along the way it interferes with the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients (including vitamins A, D, E, and K), phytochemicals, and also prescription drugs that are soluble in fat.

Olestra is used in a vast array of foods. It may be found in potato chips, corn chips, cheese puffs, crackers, doughnuts, pastries, pies, cakes, cookies, ice cream, French fries, fried chicken, fried fish, onion rings., margarines and cheeses. In the first six months after Frito-Lay launched chips made with Olestra in 1998, the company sold more than 100 million bags.

Are the claims for enhanced health benefits from Olestra true? Theoretically, eating olestra instead of fats known to be unhealthy might bring benefits. But there is no proof whatsoever that this is in fact what occurs. Food additive regulations do not require companies to prove that their products improve health. The FDA did not require P&G to demonstrate during the approval process that olestra actually merits the claims being made for it, and the company made no attempt to do so.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has long maintained that olestra should never have been approved. According to CSPI, the data indicate that olestra depletes carotenoids and fat-soluble vitamins and causes noticeable gastrointestinal disturbances including a condition the organization termed “fecal leakage.”

Having made a $500 million investment in olestra research and development, P&G has not been pleased with CSPI’s position. The company hired Washington’s most feared and vilified private-investigative firm to obtain information that could be used to undermine CSPI’s credibility. According to Marion Nestle, Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU, P&G “placed media stories critical of CSPI in publications with financial connections to the company. For example, a Reader’s Digest article characterizing CSPI as the ‘food police’ failed to mention that P&G is the magazine’s third largest advertiser and had spent a million dollars on advertising in that particular issue alone.”

Olestra was approved based on studies that were performed by P&G itself. Studies conducted or supported by P&G have found olestra to pose no health risks. But these studies lasted only a few weeks or months, not nearly long enough to discover any long-term effects. Disinterested investigators have pointed out that the P&G studies are seriously flawed by small sample sizes, short time spans, and other problems. One study that was not funded by P&G found that olestra caused gastrointestinal problems and significantly reduced blood levels of fat soluble vitamins and carotenes in up to 30% of people who ate a dose of 3 grams – less than the amount in an ounce of potato chips.

The FDA approved olestra but required a warning notice, saying: “This product contains olestra. Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients…”

I agree with Marion Nestle when she writes: “Given the uncertainties about olestra’s long term effects on vitamin absorption, the lack of evidence for long-term benefits, the overabundance of food produced in the United States, and the pressing need to find ways to feed the world’s growing population, P&G’s Herculean efforts to develop and market olestra might well be viewed as an astonishing waste of human, land, food, and economic resources.”

How sad that more of us don’t realize that we could accomplish so much more simply by not eating these foods, and instead eating foods that are healthy in the first place.

Something crossed my desk recently, titled “God and the Devil duke it out over fat.” I don’t know who wrote it. Though it doesn’t specifically mention olestra, it seems remarkably apropos:

And God populated the earth with broccoli and cauliflower and spinach, green and yellow vegetables of all kinds, so Man and Woman would live long and healthy lives.

And Satan created McDonald’s. And McDonald’s brought forth the 99-cent double-cheeseburger. And Satan said to Man, “You want fries with that?”

And Man said, “Super size them.” And Man gained pounds.

And God created the healthful fruits of the tree, that woman might keep her figure that man found so fair.

And Satan brought forth ice cream and candy. And woman gained pounds.

And God said, “I have sent you heart healthy vegetables and olive oil with which to cook them.”

And Satan brought forth chicken-fried steak so big it needed its own platter.

And Man gained pounds and his bad cholesterol went through the roof.

And God said, “Behold, I have given you legs that can walk,” And Man resolved to lose those extra pounds.

And Satan brought forth cable TV with remote control so Man would not have to toil to change channels between ESPN and ESPN2. And Man gained pounds.

And God said, “You’re running up the score, Devil.”

And God brought forth the potato, a vegetable naturally low in fat and brimming with nutrition.

And Satan peeled off the healthful skin and sliced the starchy center into chips and deep-fat fried them. And he created sour cream dip also.

And Man clutched his remote control and ate the potato chips swaddled in cholesterol.

And Satan saw and said, “It is good.”

And Man went into cardiac arrest.

And God sighed and created quadruple bypass surgery.

And Satan created HMO’s…

All the best,

John

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