Olestra

Olestra

[oh-les-truh]
Olestra (also known by its brand name Olean) is a fat substitute that adds no fat, calories, or cholesterol to products. It was created by Procter & Gamble in 1968.

Commercialization

Olestra was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as a food additive in 1996 and was initially used in potato chips under the WOW brand by Frito Lay. In 1998, which was the first year Olestra products were marketed nationally after the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee confirmed a judgment it made 2 years earlier, sales were over $400 million (Nestle 338). However, by 2000 sales slowed to $200 million, largely caused by the unappealing side effects described on the FDA-mandated health warning label:

This condition (normally occurring only by excessive consumption in a short period of time) became popularly known as "anal leakage."

One of the main concerns of the FDA about Olestra was the irony that it would encourage consumers to eat more of the "top of the pyramid" foods due to the perception of it being more healthy; a paradox resulting in over-consumption thinking that Olestra allows that without consequence (Nestle, 339-340,2002). In light of this fact, approving Olestra as an additive would have meant that consumers would be consuming a food with a relatively high amount of an additive, and the long-term health effects were not documented. This fact is what made the FDA particularly hesitant to approve the product in addition to the side effects such as diarrhea and concern for the loss of fat-soluble vitamins (Nestle, 340).

The approval came on the heels of 30 years of research and development by Procter and Gamble. Olestra was originally filed as a drug with the FDA in 1975, but after not being able to prove the efficacy of olestra to lower blood cholesterol levels by at least 15%, Procter and Gamble abandoned the drug-approval petition and returned to try to approve olestra as a food additive (Nestle 341). P&G garnered congressional support in securing patents to maintain property rights on the product until approval in 1996 (Nestle, 347, 2002).

The FDA removed the warning requirement in 2003 as it had "conducted a scientific review of several post-market studies submitted by P&G, as well as adverse event reports submitted by P&G and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (a particularly outspoken critic). The FDA concluded that the label statement was no longer warranted in spite of having received over 20,000 complaints.

Chemistry

Normal fats consist of a glycerol molecule with three fatty acid tails attached. However, Olestra is synthesized using a sucrose molecule, which can support from six to eight fatty acid chains arranged radially like an octopus, and is too large to move through the intestinal wall and be absorbed. Olestra has the same taste and mouthfeel as fat, but since it does not contain glycerol and the fatty acid tails can not be removed from the sucrose molecule for digestion, it passes through the digestive system without being absorbed and adds no calories or nutritive value to the diet. From a mechanical point of view, scientists were able to manipulate the compound in such a way that it could be used in place of cooking oils in the preparation of many types of food (Nestle, 340, 2002).

Since it contains fatty acid functional groups, Olestra is able to dissolve lipid-soluble vitamins such as vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K, and vitamin A, along with carotenoids. Fat soluble nutrients consumed along with Olestra products are excreted along with the undigested Olestra molecules. To counteract this loss of nutrient, products made with Olestra are fortified with oil soluble vitamins to compensate for this loss to fecal matter.

When removing the Olestra warning label, the FDA cited a 6-week Procter & Gamble (makers of Olestra) study of more than 3000 people showing that an Olestra-eating group experienced only a small increase in bowel movement frequency.

P&G also worked hard in its publicity campaigns to highlight the positives of the additive, even working directly with the health-care community (Nestle, 351, 2002). But, outside of the popular culture disapproval of the product, many consumers simply did not see the speedy results for which they had hoped from a product they saw as being a cure all. This was because Olestra only dealt with the fat component of the overall dietary pattern of Americans. Foods containing olestra do contain calories and many Americans believed that they could just eat more of them to compensate for the less "saved" (Nestle 353). Eating olestra chips was not a particularly efficient way to improve one's diet overall.

In 1999, researchers discovered that Olestra helps facilitate the removal of dioxins from the body, as it apparently binds to dioxins in a manner similar to that of normal fats. This unexpected side effect may make the substance useful in treating victims of dioxin poisoning.

In popular culture

  • On an episode of Wonderfalls, a character loses 13 pounds after eating many muffins made with a fat substitute.
  • Chris Elliott performed a skit on an episode of The Late Show With David Letterman in which he "taste tested" Olestra and Crisco vegetable shortening (actually just simulated) by eating huge mouthfuls of each from wooden mixing spoons.
  • One episode of MADtv featured a Parody advertisement for Olestra: "now with “10% less anal leakage.”
  • In episode 3.02 “My Journey” of the television series Scrubs, J.D. mentions that his favorite chips apparently cause anal leakage.
  • In the Robin Williams comedy special “Live On Broadway”, Williams does a sketch about how Olestra causes anal leakage.
  • In the Futurama episode, “Bendin' in the Wind” (3ACV13), Bender consumes a single chip cooked with Olestra and has a stomach ache, then proceeds to drop a load of bricks from his buttocks.
  • In the movie The Sweetest Thing, Thomas Jane tells Jason Bateman's character that the potato chips he is eating cause bright orange anal leakage. Bateman then spits out the food while exclaiming "What kind of marketing brainiac puts anal leakage on his product? How can you even sell that crap?".
  • Cited by Tyler Durden in the movie Fight Club, in addition to other chemicals demonstrating the nation's movement to a synthetic revolution.
  • In Ray Romano's comedy special, "Live At Carnegie Hall", Romano jokes about Olestra and anal leakage.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Days of Wine and D'oh'ses," Homer says, "Hey, Apu, you got any of those potato chips that give you diarrhea? I need to do a little spring cleaning". Apu responds, "They are in the safety cabinet. I'll get the key," and comes back carrying several bags of Ruffles potato chips.
  • A humorous article on the effect of Olestra appeared on Craigslist's "Best of" entitled "Do not eat Pringles fat free potato chips
  • In Vogue journalist Jeffrey Steingarten's critically acclaimed 1997 book of his collected articles, "The Man Who Ate Everything", there is a chapter about Olestra entitled "A Fat of No Consequence".
  • In RuPaul's movie Starrbooty, one of the supporting characters is named "Ol' Lestra." Despite explaining that her name means "half the motherf****** calories!" she is the most overweight character in the movie.

Media

Footnotes

Nestle, Marion. Food Politics. University of California Press, Ltd.: London, 2002.

External links

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