Olestra: Is This Fat Substitute Making a Comeback?

You don’t notice the label on packages anymore, but Olestra is still being used as a food additive and makers of snack chips, popcorn and other tasty treats are rebranding their products as “light,” so you might not even know they contain Olestra. If you haven’t heard of it yet, Olestra, developed by Procter & Gamble and marketed under the trade name “Olean,” is a fat-based substitute for conventional fats. According to the Food and Drug Administration, “because of it’s unique food composition, Olestra adds no fat or calories to food.”

The FDA approved Olestra back in January 1996 and it was introduced into snacks like potato chips, crackers and tortilla chips, making them lower in fat and calories than traditional chips. Sound too good to be true? Maybe it is.

Since its’ introduction in 1996, the FDA has received reports of digestive problems related to Olestra from more than 20,000 people – more than from all other food additives in history combined. The most common complaints are abdominal cramping, loose stools and diarrhea. According to the FDA, Olestra also inhibits the body’s absorption of certain fat soluble vitamins and nutrients. Because of this, the FDA requires the essential vitamins A, D, E, and K be added to snacks containing Olestra. Until 2003, warning labels were required to warn consumers of the potential side effects. The label had read, “This product contains Olestra. Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stool. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E and K have been added.” In August 2003 the FDA dropped its requirement for a warning label on packages of Olestra-containing chips as a result of a 6-week study that reported a “minor increase in bowel movement.”

The problems with Olestra go beyond loose stools, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. It gives people the idea that if they consume fat-free, low-fat or fake fact products, then they don’t have to worry about calories or portion size. Americans get the idea that it’s ok to consume larger amounts higher calorie products such as sweet rolls, cookies, donuts and cake, so we end up consuming more of these products than normal. Remember, low-fat doesn’t mean no fat and no calories and fat-free doesn’t mean calorie free. The best diet is not a diet that just limits fat intake. A good diet also emphasizes foods such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains and dietary fiber.

Olestra supporters maintain that Olestra would help to reduce Americas fat intake and in turn control Americas’ weight problem. The sad truth is, Americas’ weight problem hasn’t gotten any better since the introduction of this additive – it’s worse. More than 90% of the U.S adult population reports consuming low-fat or reduced fat foods and Americans have bought more than three billion servings of snacks made with Olestra, yet the number of overweight individuals continues to rise. Obesity rates have doubled in the past 20 years.

So if Olestra hasn’t had any effect on Americas’ waistlines and to date and more than 20,000 complaints have been recorded with the FDA, why is it still being used? Many believe that Olestra is on its’ way out. Procter & Gamble abandoned its’ plan to use Olestra in French fries, cheese, ice cream, and other foods and sold Olestra to a smaller company. Sales of Olestra-containing products have plummeted by more than 60%. Instead of looking for snacks containing Olestra, consumers are making sure their products don’t contain the fake fat

So with the decrease in popularity and the absence of any health, fat fighting or weight-loss benefits, what is Olestra good for? You be the judge.

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