What is olestra?

Keeping it Unreal

That question comes from an HSI member named Marie who also wants to know: “Is it good or bad for a person? I have some tortilla chips that have olestra in the ingredients list.”

If I were Marie I would very gently put down the bag, cautiously step away from the chips, and then turn around and run as fast as I could.

Give and take

If Marie closely examines the information on her bag of tortilla chips she’ll notice that the chips have been fortified with vitamins A, D, E and K. That’s the good news (such as it is). The bad news: olestra has been shown to deplete the body of those four vitamins, so the FDA requires manufacturers of olestra products to provide the nutrients that the product removes.

Yes, you read that correctly: The FDA insists on MANDATORY vitamin supplements for anyone who eats the vitamin-robbing “savory snacks” (such as potato chips, crackers and cheese puffs) that are made with olestra.

Hmm. What do you suppose the chances are that cheese puff manufacturers are making a special effort to use appropriate amounts of fresh, high-quality vitamins?

Olestra can’t be metabolized in the gut, so it’s neither absorbed nor digested. As it moves through the digestive tract, olestra binds fat-soluble molecules (such as the four vitamins listed above) and blocks their absorption. But research conducted by Proctor & Gamble (the maker of olestra) found even more evidence of nutrition depletion. In a study that examined the effects of an olestra intake of eight grams per day (about 16 potato chips), blood levels of important carotenoids such as lutein, lycopene and beta-carotene dropped by more than half in just two weeks. Another study in Holland (published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) produced similar results.

Would you like cramps with your snack?

What Marie WON’T find on her bag of tortilla chips is this additional note that the FDA once required on all products containing olestra: “Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools.”

Nice!

The abdominal cramping note was required between 1996 and 2003, but the FDA lifted it after deciding that those digestive problems were not as common as once thought. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest doesn’t agree. According to a 2004 article on the CSPI web site, the FDA has received more than 20,000 adverse reaction reports about olestra – “more than any other food additive in history.” And CSPI reports that a P&G study revealed that eight grams of olestra per day over eight weeks prompted a five-fold increase in diarrhea compared to a placebo group.

In a 2003 “Talk Paper,” FDA reps noted another reason why a warning about abdominal cramping and diarrhea risk was not needed: “Post-market studies showed consumers are aware of olestra and its potential GI effects.”

Oh, I get it! Sure! Everyone already knows olestra cheese balls may send you running for the bathroom. No need to bore consumers (like Marie) by repeating that useful information over and over again!

(I hope no one tells the tobacco companies about this little warning loophole!)

Imitation is the sincerest form of bad nutrition

To answer Marie’s first question: Olestra is a fat substitute created by Proctor & Gamble scientists in 1968. Back then, olestra went by the name “sucrose polyester” and was designed to help premature babies increase fat intake.

In the late 80s, when research showed that olestra could replace fats to create low-fat and fat-free products, olestra looked like it might turn into a ubiquitous ingredient in the era of low-fat mania. In fact, one stock analyst called olestra “the single most important development in the history of the food industry.”

I hope he didn’t invest too much money based on that stark raving prediction.

Meanwhile, there are still safety concerns about the long-term intake of olestra. The CSPI web site includes this quote from Dr. Walter Willett and Dr. Meir Stampfer of the Harvard School of Public Health: “there is strong reason to suspect that the effects [of olestra] will include increases in cancer, heart disease, stroke, and blindness.”

Very gently put down the bag

Sources:
“The Facts about Olestra” Center for Science in the Public Interest, cspinet.org
“FDA Changes Labeling Requirement for Olestra” FDA Talk Paper, 8/1/03, fda.gov
“CSPI Warns Consumers About Frito-Lay ‘Light’ Chips with Olestra” Center for Science in the Public Interest, 10/25/04, cspinet.org