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You’ve heard that Cleveland gets no respect, but it could be worse. Pity poor Columbus, Ohio. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has labeled that city "the diarrhea capitol of America."
Now, to tell the truth, I grew up hating Columbus. I lived in the rival Big 10 town of Champaign-Urbana and watched in misery every year as the Ohio State Buckeyes (or the University of Michigan Wolverines) trounced my beloved Illini in football and went on to the Rose Bowl.
But even the home of the Damn Buckeyes deserves a better moniker than what CSPI gave it.
Why the controversy? Well, Columbus is a test market for Procter & Gamble (P&G’s) calorie-free fake fat, called olestra. It’s one of four cities acting as a test-market for snacks made with the product — and which CSPI has turned into a battle ground of public opinion.
CSPI commissioned a survey in the three original cities where olestra chips were test-marketed, then announced to residents of Columbus that they, too, would suffer all the horrors that residents of these other places had. According to the survey, olestra chips were some sort of Montezuma’s Revenge in a package. No fewer than 20 percent of respondents said the chips had given them gastro-intestinal problems.
But so sloppy was the survey methodology that professional pollsters like Lou Harris or George Gallup would be spinning in their graves — were they not still alive.
The first major problem is that CSPI had already "tainted the jury" by blanketing the airwaves with warnings that olestra would cause all of the nasty symptoms which it then proceeded to ask people if they had.
This is called auto-suggestion, in which you prompt psychosomatic illness by suggesting to people that they really ought to have it. Such an illness is one on which the pain (or cramping or whatever) is real, but induced by suggestion. That is, there is no organic disease or cause. As it happens, diarrhea is one of the most readily induced psychosomatic illnesses.
At a July 1 press conference, CSPI announced, "The more we publicized our interest — and our toll-free number — the more complaints we learned of." Of course! That’s exactly the way psychosomatic illness spreads. Had CSPI blanketed the area with claims that olestra caused headaches and joint pains — two of the other most common psychosomatic illnesses — there would have been a sudden outbreak of those.
Indeed, to this day NutraSweet is dogged by claims that it causes headaches, apparently simply because somebody way back when associated a headache with it. Since then it’s become a matter of folklore.
The CSPI poll was also skewed in asking, "How many if any at all of the people in your household, including yourself, experienced cramps, loose stools, diarrhea or other adverse effects as a result of eating the" olestra products.
This is a question that cannot be answered, even if the respondent is a doctor. The respondent can say, yes, I had olestra products and yes, I had cramping or loose stools or whatever. But it’s impossible to know that the two are necessarily related, since all sorts of things even beyond suggestion can bring on these symptoms. For example, what if they ate the chips with a bean dip?
The only fair way to test olestra on people is to give one group of people chips with the real thing — meaning in this case the fake thing. Then you give the other group chips with a placebo or fake olestra — meaning real fat. Then you compare the symptoms.
Such tests have repeatedly shown that unless you dive into a huge bag of olestra chips and then eat your way out, you’re no more likely to develop gastro-intestinal distress than if you were eating something fried in oil. Yes, your stool may take on a different consistency, and for some people that will be bothersome.
Olestra’s ability to cause irritation in large amounts just puts it in the same category of such high-fibers foods as bran, beans, and dried fruits — especially prunes, of course.
In any case, we shouldn’t feel free to eat huge amounts of olestra-containing foods. When it comes to pigging out, already nobody does it better than we Americans. We regularly consume dinosaur-sized portions of everything from muffins bigger than your head, steaks consisting of virtually a whole cow, and sodas in cups so large you should wear a life vest while drinking them, lest you fall in and drown.
My fear is that olestra will just encourage this trend away from moderation and that we, the fattest of the Western nations, will become ever more so. But olestra foods eaten in moderation will help avoid both this propensity towards gluttony and the possibility of knocking over family members as you make a beeline for the porcelain palace.
Just as I’m not "pro-olestra," I’m hardly anti-CSPI. Indeed, I am a member. I support most of what they do and have praised them as the only activist group in the country fighting against the dangerous and fast-growing national obesity problem. That’s why their campaign against olestra baffles and disturbs me. They need to get back to fighting obesity and false food claims, and flush this campaign against fake fat down the toilet.
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