TOPICS > Health

Fat Substitute Olestra

November 17, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT


FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Late this afternoon, a Food & Drug Administration panel gave its approval for a zero calorie fat substitute called olestra. The move is the final step before likely approval by the FDA. Olestra was developed by the Procter & Gamble Company and intended for use in the $15 billion a year snack foods industry. Joining us to talk about olestra is Dr. Arthur Frank. He is medical director of the Obesity Management Program at George Washington University. Dr. Frank, thanks for joining us this evening. Why don’t we begin with: just what is olestra and how does it work?

DR. ARTHUR FRANK: It’s an artificial fat. It substitutes for fat, and it’s not digested and it’s not absorbed by the body. As a result, it passes through the body, and it functions as if it were a fat in modifying the taste and flavor of food, and in enabling people to enjoy the ordinary snack foods that they use that are made with fat but without getting the calories that they would get from the fat of those snack foods.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And is that primarily where we’re going to see this product used?

DR. FRANK: I think initially we’ll see it used entirely as snack foods, and in sort of frivolous foods, junk foods.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Potato chips.

DR. FRANK: Potato chips.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: French fries.

DR. FRANK: And things like that. And it will enable people to eat these kinds of foods with somewhat less calories and somewhat less fat consumed in the process. But it won’t solve the problem of obesity.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: This was a product that was opposed by a number of consumer groups and scientists who had questions about its side effects. What were those side effects, or what are those side effects?

DR. FRANK: I think the side effects are two. One is that as this artificial fat goes through the body and does not get absorbed, it then ultimately goes through and passes out with the body’s waste. And some people, and perhaps for many people, it will cause diarrhea and it will cause uncomfortable intestinal symptoms. The other problem is that because it is an artificial fat, it will–ordinary fat-soluble vitamins will be solubilized in in this fat and will be drawn out with the stools in people who are using this in large quantities, if people use it in large quantities, then they will have a loss of vitamins, of the fat-soluble vitamins with these, with this product which has gone through and wasted with the stools. The company plans, I’ve been told the company plans to fortify this product with fat-soluble vitamins, and to a certain extent, that will mitigate the problem. And to a certain extent, the extent, the amount of diarrhea and intestinal symptoms that occur will be a function of how much you consume. If you consume a lot of it, then you are more likely to have side effects. And people who get side effects, and some will and some won’t, people who get side effects will probably tend not to use it, because it will be uncomfortable.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Is this going to allow people who can tolerate this product to just snack away?

DR. FRANK: No. It will not–it will not allow you to just abandon your effort and just do what you please, because snack foods do contain calories apart from the fat content of snack foods. It will enable people to use snack foods with a little bit more comfort, because they will get somewhat less calories from fat, but it won’t solve the problem of obesity. It won’t solve the problem of snack foods simply because people will, will be getting the calories someplace else. The body adjusts itself to the calories consumed during the course of the day, and if you’re not getting your calories here, you will get your calories someplace else, unless you make a deliberate effort to cut down your calorie consumption. So people who will work at the task, who will devote some effort and determined will power to the task of trying to cut down the calories will find that this is a useful way of displacing fat and of shifting, reallocating their calories, it will be useful. To a certain extent it will function in much the same way that saccharin functions or Nutrasweet, aspartame, functions. It will enable you to shift your calories, give you a little bit more flexibility in the way you allocate your calories in your food during the course of the day but will not solve the problem. It will not make you eat less. It will perhaps enable you to be a little bit more careful if you’re determined to be careful.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Very quickly finally, this was a week in which obesity, as a public health problem, seemed to have come on to the front burner at the FDA, because there was the approval of the obesity pill. How’s that? Are we likely to see this continue to be a top priority at the government, of the FDA?

DR. FRANK: I don’t think it’s ever going to be a top priority, but I think that what we’re doing is we’re seeing a medicalization of the problem of obesity. We’re getting more and more recognition that obesity is a complex disease, it is a medical problem, and that it ought to be handled as if it’s a medical problem, and that there will be medical ways to handle it, and medications will be useful. I think we’re seeing with the approval of the medication yesterday, I think we’re seeing the first step in probably a whole series of medications which will be coming along in the next five or ten years which will have a significant sustaining impact on the medical management of obesity, much as if it is a disease, because it really is a disease with enormous devastating consequences for people who have this particular disease.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Well, Dr. Arthur Frank, that’s all we have time for. Thanks for joining us.