The Scoop

P&G + FDA = BS

Another modest nutritional proposal

By Bob Harris

ALMOST TWO YEARS AGO, this column detailed my personal experiences with Olestra, the new fat substitute now used in fried snack foods (“Betcha Can’t Excrete Just One,” July 23, 1996).

At the time, hundreds of doctors were expressing grave concern about the product’s safety. Olestra has no calories largely because the molecule is so huge that the body has no idea what it is and wisely disposes of it as waste. Rather quickly. Leading to nausea, diarrhea, and even worse stuff that’s so gross I won’t go into it. On the way out, Olestra also binds to a class of disease-fighting nutrients in your bloodstream called carotenoids–beta-carotene is the best-known example–so the net effect is to remove nutrients, not add them.

And keep in mind that the stuff’s sold as a healthy alternative.

Intrepid reporter that I am, I decided to sample these Ex-Lax Potato Leeches for myself. Back in 1996, chips with the new goo were test-marketed in only three small towns, hundreds of miles away from competent product-liability attorneys, so on a trip through Grand Junction, Colo., I became one of the very first Americans to sample the effects of Olestra.

OK, fast forward to the present. The FDA approved the glop, but only after demanding the addition of a bunch of vitamins that might replace some of the stuff being pulled out of you, and also insisting on a warning label linking Olestra to everything from anal leakage to the Kennedy assassination.

Fine print notwithstanding, Olestra is now widely available, most notably as the fat substitute in Frito-Lay’s Wow Chips, so named presumably because “Urrrrrggghhh” was already taken.

However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest insists that long-term use of Olestra causes a lot more discomfort than Procter & Gamble admits, and eventually may cause thousands of cancers nationwide. At a recent news conference, Dr. Walter Willett, head of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health, stated that several studies correlate decreased carotenoids with increased cancers, and “even the amount of Olestra in a small, one-ounce bag of potato chips will lower blood carotenoids by over 50 percent if consumed on a daily basis.”

For its part, Procter & Gamble admits that Olestra passes through you undigested and bonds to fat-soluble vitamins, but claims it’s nothing to worry about. In P&G’s words, “There are still scientists that disagree … . There is no study that has shown conclusively that carotenoids have any effect on health.”

The tobacco guys said roughly the same thing for decades: As long as there are scientists who disagree (some of whom happen to be on their payroll), there’s no reason to listen to the head nutrition guy at Harvard.

Maybe P&G is listening to the cash registers instead. Wow chips, marketed as a healthy, low-fat product, are selling at the rate of over a million dollars’ worth a day. At this rate, the Harvard guy estimates that the United States will experience between 2,000 and 9,800 excess cases of prostate cancer; 32,000 excess cases of heart disease; 1,400 to 7,400 excess cases of lung cancer; and 80 to 390 excess cases of blindness.

THE FDA is now reviewing Olestra again. The CSPI wants the FDA to withdraw approval of the glop, make people like Frito-Lay stop selling the chips as “fat free,” or at least strengthen the warning labels to include more stuff about cancer, blindness, and maybe Watergate or Iran-Contra.

Don’t get your hopes up. The FDA has reportedly received over 5,000 letters from people whose Olestra experiences were generally similar to mine: eating one bag of chips and then having to Squeeze the Charmin for their very lives.

But even so, the folks at the FDA also say they haven’t seen anything that would cause them to change their minds.Oh really? Apparently what they’re asking for here is a visual aid.

OK, fine. As alert reader Robert Burns (not the poet, unless AOL is now extending its 50-hour free trials to dead people) suggests, let’s take the FDA at its word. Next time you suffer adverse side effects from consuming Olestra, maybe the best thing to do is simply place those adverse side effects in a sealed container and send them directly to the FDA.

After all, fair’s fair. It’s nothing the government doesn’t give us all the time anyway.

From the June 18-24, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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