Getting fat off non-fat

A fat substitute with some unpleasant potential side effects pits junk food against junk science

Last week, Plano-based snack-food giant Frito-Lay and consumer-product behemoth Procter & Gamble Co. coasted through three days of federal hearings in Washington, D.C., that scrutinized what is shaping up to be the most lucrative food ingredient ever developed: P&G's fat substitute olestra, marketed under the trade name Olean. Fifteen members of the 18-member Food Advisory Committee of the Food and Drug Administration reaffirmed the safety of the substance, which garnered FDA approval in early 1996 for use in snacks such as chips and crackers. Foods fried in olestra have a flavor and texture similar to those prepared with fats, but the substitute cannot be absorbed or digested by the body and adds no fat or calories.

The FDA's green light was granted despite vigorous protests from the public-health advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an organization known for its campaigns highlighting the heart-stopping effects of movie-theater popcorn, Chinese and Mexican restaurants, and fast food. CSPI charges that olestra strips the body of vital nutrients while it wreaks havoc on the digestive system, causing severe gas, diarrhea, "anal oil leakage," and stained underwear. Before last week's hearings, the organization staged a news conference in which olestra-afflicted consumers recounted episodes of watery diarrhea, severe cramps, yellow stools, and constant trips to the bathroom, all near a display featuring a mountain of toilet-paper rolls wrapped in "ban olestra" labels. One woman dubbed the stuff "fat from hell."

Yet after reviewing results of clinical studies and marketplace data gathered over the past 30 months, the panel of health and nutrition experts concluded that the charges of serious olestra-related health hazards were baseless, though they did recommend retaining warning messages on packages--albeit with clarifications.

These conclusions are especially sweet for Frito-Lay, which looks to realize fat profits from snack foods created with the pseudo fat. Since the national rollout of its fat-free "WOW!" chips earlier this year, Frito-Lay set product sales records that made WOW! the biggest product launch of the decade and the most successful new food product in history. WOW! sales volume reached $58 million between March 8 and May 3, and Frito-Lay spokeswoman Lynn Markley says the company projects it will rack up $400 million in sales after WOW!'s first full year on the shelf.

Sales figures look equally delicious for P&G, which expects to generate $400 million in olestra sales by mid-1999. And the company hasn't even begun to tap the real potential of its "fat from hell."

This fat-free cash cow stands to grow bulkier if P&G obtains FDA approval to include olestra in other foods. How big? In 1987, when P&G began petitioning the FDA for olestra approval as a general-purpose fat substitute, an analyst from the defunct investment firm Drexel Burnham Lambert predicted it would be the single most important development in the food industry, generating some $1.5 billion in annual sales.

All this FDA and marketplace acceptance coupled with potential obese corporate profits, irritates CSPI head Michael Jacobson. "I think it's crazy to add an additive that has negative nutritional value," says Jacobson, who wants the FDA to revoke olestra approval and is petitioning the Federal Trade Commission to halt P&G's multimillion-dollar advertising campaign for Olean. "We are going to continue informing the public about olestra, discouraging companies from using it, and trying to influence public policy."

Since 1987, when his group began its campaign to ban the substance, he's predicted olestra would cause epidemics of diarrhea and might lead to thousands of deaths and hundreds of cases of blindness, disaster claims the FDA says are insupportable. He has also accused Frito-Lay of failing to submit to the FDA an olestra study showing significant instances of "anal oil leakage" and underwear staining. (Frito-Lay said the study had major flaws, and the FDA stated the study had no relevance to any safety decision.) Jacobson characterized P&G's recent clinical studies showing the product is safe as "hogwash and junk science."

"What we're disputing is that the tests that the [FDA] committee looked at...were very narrow," says CSPI spokeswoman Penelope Miller. "We didn't feel they were appropriate or scientific at all." Miller adds that the new studies weren't broad enough (they didn't examine fake fat's effects on children) or of proper duration to draw credible conclusions.

She also takes issue with the fact that the studies were funded by P&G. "Of course, while they are funding anything, it's going to come out in their favor," Miller claims.

Yet CSPI bases much of its anti-olestra campaign on earlier P&G studies showing that the substance caused gastrointestinal problems in sizable numbers of test subjects. The company says those studies were based on an earlier version of the additive. "Olestra had undergone changes before it went out onto the test market," explains P&G spokeswoman Becky Kimbell. "At one point, they did make the oil firmer because of the problem of potentially going through the body a little faster."

Recent P&G studies have survived scrutiny by the Journal of the American Medical Association and the FDA. But Jacobson charges AMA's peer-review process, which validated the findings of one olestra study showing the substance was safe, might have been published in an effort to secure an $800,000 donation from P&G. Both P&G and the AMA deny this. But three years before the Journal published the study, the AMA had solicited corporate funding for its fitness educational campaign tied to the '96 Olympics. Procter & Gamble issued the AMA an $800,000 check, but the organization rejected it when it realized the check was drawn on an account for Olean.

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