Procter & Gamble’s Non-fat Fat - Neither Satan Nor (Sigh) Savior

By Michael Fumento

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Copyright 1996 Michael Fumento

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Okay, so it wasn’t Time magazine’s "Man of the Year," but it came awfully close, making the cover of the January 8, 1996 issue. The subject was Procter & Gamble’s remarkable fat substitute olestra, to be marketed under the name Olean. It’s been hailed as a powerful weapon in the battle of the increasingly bulging American bulge. It’s also been portrayed as a death-dealing villain. It is neither.

The Food and Drug Administration has now approved olestra — the first artificial fat available that can be used in the baking and frying process — to be used in potato chips, taco chips, and crackers. Later P&G may request the FDA to approve it for use in such goodies as cakes, brownies, and french fries.

According to most taste-testers, to the tongue foods made with olestra are identical to those made with real fat. But to the body, olestra may as well be Teflon, since it literally slides through the intestines without stopping off to visit arteries, hips, or waistlines.

The FDA approved the fake fat over the objections of some scientists and consumer advocates, who warn that it has unusual risks. Some studies have shown that as little as two ounces of olestra chips can act as a laxative. It can also cause other gastrointestinal difficulties including a condition called (forgive me; but science writers must sometimes be gross) "anal leakage."

But as such it will hardly be alone among favorite foods. One needn’t be familiar with the famous scene in the movie Blazing Saddles to know the effect that beans can have. And if you eat more than a few prunes or other dried fruits at one sitting you may well find yourself doing several more sittings somewhere else.

In any event, the FDA approval requires labeling the product to this effect. My guess, though, is that the label will often be ignored by overzealous consumers — though probably ignored only once.

More alarming is olestra’s ability to wash out of the body certain nutrients believed important for preventing disease. While P&G will fortify olestra with vitamins A, D, E, and K, it will not add back a controversial class of nutrients known as carotenoids, which many believe protect against cancer. P&G says evidence for that is lacking.

This nutrient depletion "could potentially produce a large number of deaths annually and major morbidity in the U.S. population," Dr. Meir Stampfer of Harvard University wrote the FDA.

But P&G’s agnostic position has repeatedly been boosted recently by one study after another finding that the Vitamin-A derivative beta carotene, a carotenoid, apparently provides no cancer-fighting effects.

The National Institutes of Health in December told the FDA that nobody knows if depletions at the levels olestra causes would really harm anyone. But certainly one factor that boosts P&G’s position is that for the most part, olestra can only wash out whatever went in with it.

Eat spinach and Pringle’s potato chips together and you’re going to lose the benefit of the spinach. Alas, people are a lot more likely to combine the potato chips with dip and a beer or soda pop than with nutritious vegetables.

But if olestra isn’t the anti-Christ, it may not prove much of a savior, either. "By replacing the fat in snacks, Olean can help millions of Americans cut excess fat and move closer to achieving an important dietary health goal," says P&G Chairman John Pepper.

I’d say more like thousands, and here’s why. Americans have been hoodwinked into believing that anything that’s fat free won’t make them fat. They’ve bought tens of millions of books and videos from shysters like Susan (Stop the Insanity) Powter and Martin (The T-Factor Diet) Katahn telling them exactly that. They so fervently want to believe it that they do.

But they’re wrong. Any energy consumed that is not burned off immediately becomes fat. True, if you ate two ounces of potato chips cooked in olestra rather than fat, you’d have just 120 calories instead of 300. For that matter, you could eat four ounces of olestra chips and still come out slightly ahead.

But if Americans could stand to eat that few chips, they wouldn’t need fat substitutes in the first place and we wouldn’t be the fattest nation on the face of the earth. Overeating is our problem and olestra, far from curing it, will only encourage it among many people.

Consider the experience with artificial sweeteners such as saccharin and aspartame (NutraSweet), which provide virtually no calories. Their use tripled in the 1980s and should have caused sugar consumption to decline and caloric intake to decline. Instead even as artificial sweetener consumption has increased so has sugar intake, caloric intake, and Americans’ waistlines.

That said, if you have the discipline to simply swap artificial sweeteners for sugar and don’t tell yourself that a Diet Coke allows you to eat an extra piece of fried chicken, you can come out ahead of the game. Likewise, if you eat ten olestra potato chips instead of ten fat-fried potato chips, you win. It’s a matter of free will and having the strength to exercise it.

That’s why the FDA’s decision was a good one. Government can protect us from dangerous substances, but government cannot protect us from ourselves.

Calculate your BMI to see if you are obese. What the scores mean:

  • 24 or under: Minimal health risk
  • 25-29: Low to moderate risk
  • 30 or over: High risk


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work onobesity.