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The real effects of a fake fat

Published Sep. 15, 2005

Product Warning: "Olestra (a fat substitute) may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E and K have been added."

Variation on a product warning: "Because it is not digested, olestra may cause discomfort or a laxative effect."

Now, which do you think best gets the message across to consumers about possible side effects of the new fake fat, olestra?

Its FDA approval required the first of the above mentioned product warnings on junk food containing the additive. The second is what the manufacturer, Procter & Gamble Co., thinks is appropriate. Now the company has asked the FDA to let it use the vague warning.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest thinks a warning label for olestra should be even more explicit, citing possible diarrhea, nausea, gas and bloating.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the fat substitute olestra, also called by the brand name Olean, for use in snack foods on Jan. 24. Olestra is described as a sucrose polyester, and its main ingredients are sugar and vegetable oil. Exactly what the effects of olestra will be on consumers over time is unknown, and that causes concern among some physicians who believe the pretesting of the product, while following what the law requires, was not as rigorous as it should have been.

Dr. Henry Blackburn of the University of Minnesota said in the April 11 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine: "Many experts believe that neither the purported benefit of consuming foods containing olestra (a reduced intake of fat and total calories) nor its long-term safety has been adequately tested in humans."

Olestra's stamp of approval for consumer consumption comes with reservations. Thus the FDA required warning. The FDA should not back down because Procter & Gamble wants wording that is less descriptive of the side effects. The multitudes who will want to take advantage of olestra in the hopes they will lose weight should know that what they may get in exchange might not be so pleasant.