When it comes to diets, the American dream is something for nothing. Who would argue if you could gorge on potato chips without suffering the fatty consequences on your hips?
Well, Procter & Gamble says it has the answer for fat-obsessed America. And next month, the Food and Drug Administration will decide whether to approve a fat substitute called olestra that tastes and feels exactly like fat - in fact it really IS fat but is engineered so that it is too large to be absorbed and passes right through you.
No calories. No fat grams. Nothing to show for your indulgence but a touch of grease around the lips.
Sounds perfect, right?
Maybe not. A consumer group on Wednesday warned that olestra is little more than a nightmare, a nutrient-robbing Blob that sucks out important vitamins as it passes through the digestive tract.
And that’s not all. The fat-infatuated Center for Science in the Public Interest, the same group that cautioned against fatty Mexican enchiladas and movie popcorn, said Procter & Gamble’s own studies show that olestra consumption can leave its mark in some rather unpleasant ways: cramps, gas, diarrhea and related problems.
“We think that Americans want to eat potato chips without risking diarrhea,” said CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson. “Or perhaps Procter & Gamble should be required to include a couple of Pampers with each bag of olestra chips it sells.”
At a dueling news conference in the same Washington hotel, Procter & Gamble officials and scientists insisted their product, which they want to market as “Olean,” is safe. They called the CSPI’s warnings, well, a little overweight.
They didn’t deny that as olestra-laced potato chips seep through the body, they take vitamins A, D, E and K with it. But they said they are enriching their olestra products with those vitamins to make up for it. And the vitamin snatching happens only if you eat olestra products with other foods, like at lunch.
“People generally don’t eat a bag of potato chips at the time when they have their main meal,” said Dr. Gary Williams, with the American Health Foundation. “And when you think of it, how many times do you eat potato chips with carrot sticks?”
Besides, Williams said, olestra has company. Other foods leech vitamins and minerals, including milk and tea.
Another scientist, Dr. Chris Hassall, who works for Procter & Gamble, also did not deny that in controlled studies, some people experienced gastrointestinal discomfort when they ate olestra “savory snacks.” But, he said, the number was small, only 2 percent in a study of some 3,000 people, and mirrored exactly the experience of those who ate full-fat goodies.
The CSPI data, he said, showed only the extreme upper end of studies and does not reflect the real world. However, Hassell hedged on questions about just how much olestra one must eat before unpleasant symptoms set in.
Procter & Gamble, whose patents for olestra are about to expire after nearly two decades and $250 million poured into research, maintains that olestra will more than make up for any deficiency by helping chunky Americans cut down on fat.
“I cannot believe that any obese American would want to eat something that gives them diarrhea,” CSPI’s Jacobson said. “Or maybe, God forbid, they should just switch to carrots and celery sticks.”