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Yes: Is fat-substitute olestra a safe bite in snack foods?

SHARE Yes: Is fat-substitute olestra a safe bite in snack foods?

After two and a half days of hearing new scientific evidence, the Food Advisory Committee of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that olestra is a safe product for use in such snack foods as chips, crackers and the like. This is a long-awaited victory of science over hype and fear-mongering.

Olestra, the non-caloric fat substitute, underwent one of the most extensive testing programs - more than 20 years of it - of any food additive ever reviewed by the FDA before its use was approved in 1996.Approval was hard-fought since manufacturer Procter & Gamble and snack food producers had to overcome a group of consumer activists who presented distorted and incomplete data to frighten consumers and influence the regulatory process. Since approval, detailed post-marketing surveillance and well-designed scientific studies have demonstrated that the earlier objections were clearly without merit.

For example, much is being made of reports of gastrointestinal disturbances among people who consumed olestra-containing snacks. The truth is, however, that GI disturbances are common. In a national sample of more than 5,000 individuals, 69 percent reported having some gastrointestinal distress in the previous three-month period. Studies, however, have found no particular connection of these upsets to the consumption of products containing olestra.

Another recent study examined the effects of olestra snacks on the occurrence of GI symptoms in a pla-cebo-controlled, double-blind test. There was no difference in the frequency of such symptoms in those who ate olestra snacks compared to those who ate indistinguishable full-fat snacks.

Olestra opponents also have cited the fact that the fat substitute interferes with absorption of some fat-soluble nutrients as a reason to forbid its use. But the effects of olestra on blood carotene levels have been grossly exaggerated.

Published research indicates that people consuming eight grams of olestra (about the amount in an ounce of olestra-containing chips) did indeed have decreased levels of carotenes in their blood. But the people in the study ate olestra at every meal, every day, for eight weeks - something the critics never mention. This is not the typical pattern of consumption of snack foods - the only foods in which olestra may be used.

A person eating an ounce or two of olestra-fried chips, for example, would be unlikely to experience any change in blood carotene levels at all. Further, there is no broad scientific consensus that carotenoids will prevent cancer or heart disease. The only large intervention studies to date on beta-carotene, for example, failed to show any benefit (and perhaps some harm) in people taking this compound in supplements. It may well be that blood levels of carotenes are simply a marker for intake of fruits and vegetables and there is a consensus that diets with ample supplies of such items are protective.

Finally, although opponents often speak of how olestra can "deplete the body of these nutrients," what's really true is that no matter how much olestra is consumed it can only affect absorption of nutrients present in the GI tract at the same time. Olestra could in no way deplete previously existing blood levels of carotenoids, or of other fat-soluble nutrients.

Happily for consumers, the FDA committee paid attention to the science - not the hype and distortions. As a result Americans can now enjoy another of the benefits of modern food science.