Imagine stretching out on the couch, a World Series game on the tube and a large bowl of chips sitting invitingly on the cushion next to you. It doesn’t get any better than that, right? Well, what if those chips tasted just like the real thing but were low in calories and had no fat?
Too good to be true, you say? Maybe, but then again, maybe not. It depends on whom you talk to. Olestra, a controversial fat substitute manufactured by Procter & Gamble, was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration and is now being used in an experimental brand of no-fat salty snack foods. Max snacks, a line of six kinds of potato and tortilla chips produced by Frito-Lay, are the first consumer products to be made with the fake fat. They are currently being test marketed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Eau Claire, Wis. and Grand Junction, Colo.
Given the growing girth of the American public, olestra’s advocates are hailing it as a godsend for consumers, who can now enjoy their favorite snack foods without packing on the pounds. But olestra also has its critics, who say it can cause gastrointestinal distress and flush important nutrients from the body. They also argue that not enough is known about the food additive’s long-term health effects.
In what could well be called Procter’s big gamble, the food giant spent 25 years and between $200 and $300 million to win approval for olestra, which is called Olean commercially. A synthetic compound of sugar and vegetable oil that passes through the body without leaving any calories behind, olestra is the first new nutrient to win FDA approval since the artificial sweetener aspartame was approved more than 20 years ago. Just as that food additive revolutionized the soft-drink industry with a flood of diet sodas, so olestra has the potential to do the same for snack foods.
Which Chip Has the Olestra
The Max product line, which includes Doritos, tortilla chips, Ruffles and regular potato chips, “promises all the great taste of America’s favorite snacks but with low and no-fat and calorie-reduced attributes,” boasts Frito-Lay. And it’s true that it takes a discriminating palate to tell the difference between a regular chip and a Max chip. Where chip lovers really notice a difference is the calories. According to Frito-Lay, a one-ounce serving of Lay’s Max potato Chips is fat-free with only 75 calories, as compared with 10 grams of fat and 150 calories of regular chips. Similarly, a one-ounce serving of Doritos Max tortilla chips has one gram of fat and 90 calories, compared with seven grams of fat and 140 calories for regular tortilla chips.
But even Frito-Lay, a division of Pepsico that uses olestra under license from Procter & Gamble, is forced to acknowledge that the fat substitute isn’t for everyone. Products made with olestra may be tasty, but they come with an unappetizing warning label. Placed on the back of the package, in small print near the bottom, the label informs consumers that they might suffer digestive problems like diarrhea and “anal leakage,” and that olestra could deplete their bodies of some vitamins and nutrients, some of which are thought to reduce the risk of cancer. Packages also carry a toll-free number for comments (1-800-483-7486). Olestra’s critics say these measures don’t go far enough, and they’re retaliating with a hotline of their own (1-888-OLESTRA). Arguing that the warning label needs to be more prominently displayed and that it understates the potential side-effects, they are urging the FDA to force Frito-Lay to strengthen the language of the warning label and to display it on the front of the package.
The pitched battle between olestra marketers and public health experts has even escalated to the World Wide Web. P&G’s web site sings the praises of the fake fat, including endorsements by several professors. Pitted against the company is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington-based nonprofit group that focuses on nutrition and food safety. Their web site includes a history of olestra, responses to P&G’s claims and information about possible side-effects.
The controversy has even become fodder for humorists. David Letterman made olestra a jumping-off point for one of his Top Ten lists; the Top Ten Slogans for the New Fat Substitute included: “We can’t tell you exactly how we make it, but we can say this: ten monkeys go into a room and only nine come out.” And Mike Deupree, a columnist for The Cedar Rapids Gazette, where Max products are being test marketed, checked out the new chips himself. “The effect will vary with the individual,” he wrote. “But—let’s put it as delicately as possible—the reason this stuff works is that it isn’t digested.”
But not everybody is laughing. Ernst J. Schaefer from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, says, “This substance has the potential to do significant harm.” Adds Dr. Fernando Trevino of the American Public Health Association, “There are too many unanswered questions remaining about the safety and long-term public health consequences of olestra consumption.”
It is because of these health concerns that CSPI is doing everything in its power to insure that olestra-laced products go the way of New Coke and other failed food fads. “Every case of diarrhea and cramping is another nail in the coffin of olestra; it’s crazy to approve such a substance,” says Michael Jacobson, CSPI’s executive director. He charges that the level of gastrointestinal distress experienced by olestra consumers is far higher than what the manufacturers are claiming. “One woman reported shuttling back and forth from her bedroom to the bathroom for three days after eating an ordinary amount,” he said. “That’s not something people should have to go through for eating a few chips.” But CSPI’s larger concern is the role olestra could play in more serious conditions. The fake fat, Jacobson argues, robs the body of carotenoids, found in many fruits and vegetables and believed to protect against cancer, heart disease, stroke and blindness.
In an effort to get olestra off the market, Jacobson said CSPI has filed a formal appeal with the FDA to rescind its approval of the fat replacer. If that fails, the center is prepared to take P&G to court. It is not unprecedented for the FDA to withdraw its approval of a food additive, although it would be highly unusual for that to occur within months of being granted. Some food dyes, cyclamates and other artificial sweeteners all eventually had to be pulled from the market, but it took decades from the time the FDA approval was awarded.
Frito-Lay says it sold 70,000 bags of Max products in the first two weeks and received about 70 calls from consumers. According to Lynn Markley, a Frito-Lay spokeswoman, half the calls were positive, most of the rest were from consumers seeking information and about 10 calls were from people reporting mild gastrointestinal symptoms.
Frito-Lay isn’t saying if or when the Max line will be sold nationally, although typically it takes six to 12 months of test marketing before a decision is made. Meanwhile, P&G is also holding seminars in an effort to persuade other snack and cracker manufacturers to sign licensing agreements allowing them to use ole
stra in their products.