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NEWS : Fat Free, Yes; Panacea, No

Olestra: The government says it's safe but approves it with warnings. Will this new artificial fat replacement slim down the gluttons? No way, say the experts.


What a delicious concept: fat-free potato chips, cheese puffs and crackers. Eat all you want and actually lose weight, right?

Not so fast, slim.

Last week's announcement that the federal government had approved the use of olestra in snack foods after an eight-year review of the ingredient's safety seemed like the perfect gift to consumers on the eve of Super Bowl XXX.

But just like the big game itself, Procter & Gamble's fat replacement will have a nearly impossible time living up to all the hype, according to a sampling of experts on diet and obesity.

First, "fat-free" does not mean "calorie-free." Eat a lot of this stuff and you will gain weight.

Second, every product that includes the trademark Olean must carry the serious baggage of a warning label stating:

"This Product Contains Olestra. Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E, and K have been added."

There is little doubt that Olean will benefit the snack food industry, which produces 5.6 billion pounds of products annually. Whether it will benefit people with weight problems is another matter.

"When people shift from a high-fat diet to a low-fat diet, there is some weight loss, but it does not solve the problem of [weight maintenance]," said Judith S. Stern, professor of nutrition and internal medicine at UC Davis. "But if I were giving information to individual patients, then I'd say, 'Go slowly on this one.' "

Stern and other health professionals say that there is no magic bullet for weight loss and that weight-reduction goals can't be reached with fat-free tortilla chips.

"[Olean] will not make much of a difference for most people. At least, I don't think it will. . . . There are very few things that we can do to lower weight and keep it down: surgery, anti-obesity drugs and changing behavioral mechanisms like increasing exercise."

Stern, for one, blames media coverage of the Food and Drug Administration's approval of Olean for giving people false hope.

"How could people be so ignorant to think they can eat all they want of fat-free food and not gain any weight?" she asks.

Maybe the public isn't so ignorant, after all. An opinion survey published last year by the Food Marketing Institute, a supermarket trade group, found that a majority of respondents believed that "there are too many foods that claim to be healthy." Forty-four percent of those queried said they strongly agreed with that statement; 32% mostly agreed; 15% mostly disagreed and 6% strongly disagreed.

"Food shoppers remain frustrated with the number of foods that claim to be healthy and are increasingly weary of experts telling them what to do," the institute report, "Shopping for Health," stated.

But Procter & Gamble insists that it is not marketing the product as a nutritional magic bullet.

"Our position is very clear: Olean is not the single solution to our dietary challenges in terms of dietary fat and watching our weight," said Wendy Jacques, associate director of public affairs for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. "[Olean] is one more tool that consumers can use to cut fat intake. It is a replacement for fat; not common sense."

It is too early to know how P&G and other snack food manufacturers will advertise Olean-treated products. But a hint is available from promotional literature P&G recently distributed to the media.

"[The] average annual potato chip consumption is 6.6 pounds per person, which equals about two ounces a week. This adds up to 15,840 calories and 1,056 grams of fat per year! By switching to fat-free potato chips made with Olean, a person could save 8,448 calories and 1,056 grams of fat a year," according to the P&G brochure, "A New Page in Snack History." (The calculations are based on regular potato chips containing 150 calories and 10 grams of fat per one-ounce serving. Olean potato chips contain 70 calories and no fat in similar amounts.)

A full-page newspaper advertisement for Olean appearing in several national newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, on Friday focused mostly on Olean's flavor, saying the ingredient is "a breakthrough new way to give you the rich taste and texture you expect from full-fat food."

Sheah Rarback, director of nutrition at the University of Miami's School of Medicine, says the debut of Olean may parallel the unrealistic expectations that accompanied the introduction of artificial sweeteners.

"High consumption of diet sodas did not have an impact on people's weight," she said. "Today, one out of three adults is overweight. Ten years ago, it was one out of four."

Rarback, who is based in the school's Department of Pediatrics, said she is concerned about the effect on children of a potential proliferation of fat-free snacks.

"Olean may have the greatest impact on children because of how frequently they get snack foods in their lunches and at home. Children don't need a significant fat reduction in their diet because they may need the extra fat calories for growth or energy. I wouldn't want to see all their savory snacks changed to Olestra savory snacks," she said.

Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, director of the U.S. National Dietary Data Center at Northwestern University in Chicago, says that Olean is not a problem, per se, but that the way it is promoted can be troublesome.

"A fat substitute in one food category is not going to make that much of a difference. What bothers me is if it is positioned in a way that people are led to believe they can have their chips and eat them all too," she said.

"The contribution that snack foods have to the total intake of fat in the American diet is not a whole lot. The greatest source of fat is still meat, dairy and other food products, such as salad dressing."

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