You won’t find Seattle cancer researcher Dr. John Potter munching on potato chips made with the calorie-free fat substitute olestra once they hit the market.
And he thinks the rest of us shouldn’t eat many of them, either.
Recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in snacks like chips and crackers, olestra is a bad idea healthwise, contends Potter, head of cancer prevention research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
His chief concern: Olestra may rob the body of carotenoids, food compounds that may help prevent cancer and other ills.
But Dr. Barry Swanson, a Washington State University food scientist who helped develop an olestralike product for Nalley’s Fine Foods, thinks these fat substitutes are safe.
Consumers may find themselves weighing the two views as they decide whether to buy foods made with olestra, which will carry the brand name Olean.
Developed by Procter & Gamble, olestra is made of sugar and vegetable oil. Although it imparts the “mouth feel” of regular fat, its molecules are too big and tightly packed to be digested, so it passes through the body without adding calories or clogging arteries.
On the down side, olestra takes some nutrients from other foods along with it and can cause diarrhea and gastric distress. To compensate for potential nutrient loss, the FDA required Procter & Gamble to add vitamins A, D, E and K to olestra.
But that’s not good enough, said Potter, who wrote the FDA opposing olestra before its approval. He said studies show olestra can rob the body not only of those vitamins but also of carotenoids in general, one of which is beta carotene, which forms vitamin A.
The functions of these compounds in the body aren’t fully known, Potter said, but many studies suggest carotenoids, as they occur in fruits and vegetables, may help prevent cancer and some kinds of blindness and play a role in cell function.
Most scientists agree olestra carries away fewer nutrients if snacks made with it are eaten apart from meals. But Potter hasn’t seen data that persuade him the timing makes a significant difference.
He thinks olestra’s approval represents faulty thinking by food companies and government. Instead of requiring government to prove a new product is dangerous, the burden should fall on companies to prove “beyond the shadow of a doubt” that it is safe, he said.
Swanson is convinced olestra and the similar product he helped develop pose no health risk. Nalley’s fat substitute is made with glucose (corn syrup) instead of olestra’s sucrose and may be less expensive to produce, but otherwise is much the same, Swanson said. He said Nalley’s had not yet petitioned the government for approval of its product.
“I don’t see any risk (with olestra),” said Swanson, a WSU professor of food science and human nutrition. He’s satisfied that nutrient-robbing would occur significantly only if olestra were consumed at or around mealtimes, and he noted that snacks such as chips are often eaten separately from meals.
Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble, Swanson said, and so are accumulated in the body: “It’s not like you have to have a fresh source every day.” He added that olestra also carries away some unwanted cholesterol.
As for the diarrhea, Swanson said it’s not a health hazard but simply “a matter of whether you mind it or don’t.”
“I’m a firm believer that people should be offered as much variety as possible,” Swanson said. “I think we should have the right to choose. Therefore, we have Twinkies and prunes and now olestra.”