- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003


Snacks made with the fake fat olestra no longer will have to bear the unappetizing label that warned they might cause cramps and diarrhea.

The Food and Drug Administration lifted the warning yesterday, concluding that if the zero-calorie fat substitute has any stomach-troubling effect, it’s mild and rare.

The FDA approved olestra’s sale in 1996, as long as packages bore labels spelling out potential gastrointestinal side effects. The synthetic made of sugar and soybeans tastes like fat, but passes through the body undigested.

The warning caused something of an uproar and helped limit olestra’s slower-than-anticipated sales.

The consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) repeatedly urged the FDA to remove olestra from the market, noting embarrassing episodes it had caused some consumers. Ultimately, the FDA received about 20,000 reports of gastrointestinal complaints among olestra eaters.

But olestra maker Procter & Gamble argued that the fake fat was safe and the complaints a coincidence — after all, the company said, stomach upset and diarrhea are very common.

Yesterday, the FDA said it was convinced by a study that tracked how 3,000 persons felt after eating chips during a six-week period. Half ate chips with olestra, and half ate chips they thought contained olestra but really didn’t, said FDA food additive chief George Pauli.

The olestra eaters had only slightly more frequent bowel movements than the people who ate full-fat chips, he said.

Of more concern to the FDA was that people had falsely attributed serious health problems to olestra because of the warning label. Mr. Pauli cited people who blamed olestra for abdominal pain that turned out to be appendicitis and others who had weeks of diarrhea from intestinal viruses.

Some people might experience mild abdominal discomfort after eating olestra, just as some people do after eating high-fiber fruit, Mr. Pauli said. Fruit doesn’t bear a warning label, however, and now olestra won’t either.

The FDA’s decision is “a mistake that will inflict needless misery, inconvenience and embarrassment for countless Americans,” said the CSPI. “This is just another in a string of setbacks for the public’s health engineered by an FDA that seems all too eager to do the bidding of big food companies.”

Consumers should see the warning gradually disappear from labels as snack makers use up already-produced packaging, said Procter & Gamble spokesman Greg Allgood.

The fake fat is used in P&G;’s Fat-Free Pringles, Frito-Lay’s WOW snacks and Utz’s Yes brand of potato chips. P&G; said Americans have eaten more than 3 billion servings of snacks that contained olestra since 1996.

Because olestra is undigested, it inhibits absorption of a few fat-clinging vitamins. FDA requires manufacturers to add vitamins A, D, E and K to products made with olestra to counter that effect. That requirement will continue, but packages no longer will have to disclose why the vitamins are being added.



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