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Will fake foods form our nutritional future?

Will Fake Foods Form Our Nutritional Future?

Dieters' hearts have been sent aflutter by announcements of two new fat substitutes, now under review by the Food and Drug Administration. The news accounts depicted the fake fats as veritable miracle workers. The nagging question is, are they too good to be true?

One candidate is sucrose polyester, called Olestra by its manufacturer, Procter & Gamble. A year ago, P&G petitioned FDA to approve Olestra, maintaining that the fat substitute, which cannot be digested and has no calories, could replace conventional fats in everything from home-baked desserts to fast-food french fries to corn chips.

Several months ago, the NutraSweet Company made headlines when it announced Simplesse, an "all-natural fat substitute" that could be used to make ice cream, thick dips and creamy dressings--all with just a fraction of the usual number of calories.

The company says that Simplesse is made from either natural egg or mil protein. Its main drawback is that it cannot be used in foods that are baked or fried.

Meanwhile, the government has gotten into the fake foods field, too. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have developed fluffy cellulose, a non-caloric replacement for flour. Fluffy cellulose can be made from sugar beet pulp or other agricultural by-products, and can replace up to half the flour in a cake or bread recipe.

These and other new ingredients could revolutionize the way Americans eat. If FDA approves the new fat substitutes, they could conceivably cut the risks of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and possibly even cancer by helping people eat less fat and fewer calories. Fat-free ice cream, french fries, and cream cheese could enable millions of people to reduce their fat intake with minimal effort.

Paradise Lost. Unfortunately, P&G's own tests show that Olestra causes tumors and liver changes in laboratory animals (see November 1987). And, though Simplesse appears to be relatively safe, it's too early to say for sure, because the NutraSweet company did not submit any testing data at all to FDA.

But the bottom line is that Olestra and Simplesse are no more the magic potions that will melt away pounds than are artificial sweeteners. Nor will they wipe out heart disease.

Although many weight-conscious consumers swear by artificial sweeteners, there's little evidence that artificially sweetened foods actually help people lose weight. In fact, the percentage of Americans who are obese remained roughly constant from 1975 to 1985, while annual sales of diet soft drinks soared from 29 to 106 containers per person.

Nor have artificial sweeteners cut sugar consumption. In the past decade, annual usage of sugar substitutes increased by an equivalent of more than 10 pounds of sugar a person. Yet during the same period, per capita consumption of refined sugars also increased by several pounds.

Fat substitutes may be as inefective as artificial sweeteners in flattening tummies. No doubt, many dieters will eat ersatz ice cream and cake for lunch, but then allow themselves a larger steak and an extra dollop of salad dressing for dinner.

And some nutritionists, such as Columbia University's Audrey Cross, fear that many people will gorge themselves on those once fatty foods and then eat significantly less fruit, vegetables, and whole grains--foods that provide nutrients and fiber not found in ice cream and cake.

The Crystal Ball Clouds. Despite the breahtaking news reports, we probably won't be seeing fake fats on supermarket shelves for a couple of years. P&G has not yet explained away the tumors and liver changes seen in rat tests. And although FDA initially told the company it could skip crucial lifetime tests on mice, the agency is likely to retract its informal, ill-conceived waiver. (FDA had agreed with P&G's argument that because Olestra is not absorbed by the body, the additive could be tested on only one -- instead of the usual two--rodent species.) The additional tests should take about four years.

Approval of Simplesse is likely to be delayed, too. The NutraSweet Company initially tried to bypass FDA's usual approval process, contending that Simplesse must, by deinition, be safe, because all of its ingredients are considered "Generally Recognized As Safe" (GRAS) by FDA. Moreover, said NutraSweet, none of the ingredients is chemically changed in the manufactring process.

Yet even the usually complacent FDA wouldn't buy this argument--not for an additive that is likely to be consumed in large quantities by millions of Americans. After FDA Commissioner Frank Young summoned NutraSweet officials to a hasty meeting, the company agreed to submit testing data to the agency.

Still, despite the delays, fat substitutes will eventually find their way into our shopping carts and stomachs. Because such ingredients could have an enormous impact on the nation's diet, we need to craft policies that will enable consumers to reap the benefits and avoid possible risks associated with the new chemical cuisine. We need to consider several steps, including:

1. Demanding that FDA do a better job of ensuring the safety of additives. The agency allowed P&G to skip essential lifetime tests of Olestra on mice. Brushing aside this standard testing protocol exemplifies the agency's "see-no-evil) attitude toward unsafe or poorly tested additives, animal drugs, and contaminants.

2. Amending the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in order to prevent companies from unilaterally declaring a major new additive safe (as NutraSweet initially did with Simplesse) without any public oversight. The law should also require companies to test additives for interactions with other substances to which people are exposed, and for effects on behavior and on particularly vulnerable segments of the population.

3. Appointing a National Academy of Sciences task force to evaluate the effects of eating fake instead of real food over the long term.

4. Requiring food manufacturers to submit "nutritional impact statements" before marketing additives that might significantly alter the nature of our diet. (We will leave gustatory impact statements for another day.)

Frightful as the recipe for "Fake Cake A La Mode" may sound, we need not be paranoid about new additives. They promise interesting new ways for people to eat more healthful diets. But first, let's make sure they don't transform our diet in ways we'll later regret.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Jacobson, Michael F.
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Jun 1, 1988
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