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Olestra--A Healthy Alternative to Fat.

The appeal of olestra--the nonabsorbable, energy-free fat substitute approved by the FDA for use in snack foods--is its ability to hold up under the high temperatures of the cooking process and still provide the taste and "feel" of fat without fat's caloric and other consequences. However, this may also result in the nonabsorption of some of the beta carotene and other fat-absorbable vitamins in other food consumed at the same time--a potential problem that vitamin supplementation of foods containing olestra can circumvent.

Of more concern is the alleged potential of olestra for causing mild to moderate GI symptoms. Because such symptoms occurred in two early studies, the FDA approval required that olestra-containing products bear the warning "Olestra may cause loose stools and abdominal cramping." In these studies, however, the participants had to consume olestra at every meal for almost two months--hardly a normal eating pattern for snack foods.

Recognizing this, researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine studied 1,123 adults and teenagers who got to munch all the potato chips they desired while watching a movie. Participants were instructed to eat their evening meal one to two hours before arriving at the theater (closed to the general public), where they were randomly assigned to two groups--one which received a large, plain white bag of regular Frito-Lay Ruffles, the other an identical bag containing Frito-Lay MAX Ruffles made with olestra.

The study showed no significant differences between those who ate the olestra chips and those who ate the regular product. Gastrointestinal disturbances of any kind (gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, upset stomach, etc.) occurred equally in both groups--and more than 80 percent of participants in both groups reported no such disturbances. Moreover, information on such disturbances was not collected until 40 hours after the movie, thus allowing for any delayed gastrointestinal malfunction that may have occurred.

Given that large-scale surveys in the past have shown that as many as two or three Americans experience some sort of GI disturbance in any given three-month period, the results of this study suggest that olestra in no more apt to cause such disturbances than the fat normally used in such snack foods among persons consuming such foods in moderation.
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Publication:Medical Update
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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