Olestra: A Controversial Ingredient

by Wellness Editor – MH

As popular as they may be, potato chips can best be described as a guilty pleasure. In order to make a chip that is amenable to the taste buds, food producers tend to pour globs of salt, cholesterol and fat into many of the potato chip brands sold to consumers. As you can imagine, this created a bit of an image problems for chips. Despite raking in billions of dollars each year, chip makers realized that a brand of chip that featured zero fat and cholesterol (along with a limited number of calories) could quickly become a cash cow.

Enter olestra, an additive originally discovered by accident in 1968. Researchers soon discovered that this new substance tasted like fat, but could not be digested by the stomach or any other organs. Because of this, olestra did not add any calories or fat to the body. Essentially, it was a food company’s dream come true – an additive with an appealing taste that wouldn’t bulge waistlines. After decades of testing and lobbying, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deemed olestra fit for human consumption in 1996.

Two years later, olestra appeared on supermarket shelves as an ingredient in Lay’s new WOW! brand potato chips. This new chip brand was marketed as offering the same taste of normal chips, but without much of the unwanted calories and none of the fat. With FDA approval and an alluring marketing angle, what could possibly go wrong?

Disagreeing with the Stomach

As it turns out, the answer to the above question was “quite a lot.” When the FDA approved olestra, it did so with one stipulation: products that carried the ingredient would have to carry a warning label. The label mandated by the FDA (and subsequently placed on WOW! brand chips) read as follows:

“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.”

After reading such a warning, you can understand why olestra is no stranger to controversy. WOW! brand chips quickly developed a notorious reputation for causing cramping, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Perhaps most disturbingly, some consumers reported that the undigested olestra wound up in their bowel movements and underwear, a digestive ailment with the cringe-inducing name of “anal leakage.”

In total, it is estimated that the FDA received between 15,000 and 20,000 complaints regarding olestra-related digestive problems. The bulk of these complaints came shortly after the introduction of olestra-filled snacks into the market.

A Vitamin Blocker

Though the digestive tract leaves olestra alone, this should not be taken to mean that this additive does not interact with any other substances inside the body. As alluded to by the FDA warning label, research has found that olestra attaches itself to several key vitamins, preventing the body from properly utilizing them. The list of vitamins effectively neutralized by olestra includes some pretty big names, including vitamins A, E, K and D. If you’ve frequently read Natural Knowledge 24/7, you likely know why these nutrients are so important to your health, but we’ll provide a brief recap nonetheless:

Vitamin D

  • Promotes strong and durable bones

Vitamin A

  • Is needed to maintain good vision and a fully functioning immune system
  • Helps enable vital organs like the heart, kidneys and the heart to function smoothly

Vitamin K

  • Allows blood to clot, preventing excessive bleeding after an injury
  • Assists the liver in converting glucose (blood sugar) into glycogen, which the body uses as reserve energy

Vitamin E

  • Bolsters our cells’ defenses against free radicals
  • Assists the immune system’s efforts against harmful bacteria and viruses

In addition, there is evidence that suggests that olestra might also reduce the body’s supply of carotenoids. Carotenoids are a type of antioxidant, and have been linked by some studies to a lower risk of heart disease, macular degeneration (an eye condition that affects the macula) and some forms of cancer.

Olestra Today

WOW! brand chips initially proved to be a very lucrative investment for Frito-Lay, raking in $400 million in sales in just their first year of release. The bad press surrounding olestra, however, caused consumers to quickly sour on the brand, cutting sales in half by 2000. The WOW! brand was discontinued shortly thereafter.

While you can no longer pick up WOW! chips at the supermarket, some salty snacks still feature olestra as an ingredient. Lay’s Light, Ruffles Light and Pringles Light all list Olestra as an ingredient. Interestingly enough, in 2003 the FDA rescinded the mandatory label for WOW! brand products, and does not require a similar warning on current chip brands with olestra. As with many other additives, the choice whether to consume olestra ultimately resides with the consumer.

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