What’s Olestra?

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Olestra is a fat substitute used in cooking and food preparation, discovered by Proctor & Gamble in 1968. It was approved by the FDA in 1996, but sales of products containing it dropped due to unpleasant side effects such as loose stools and abdominal cramps. Despite this, it is still used as a fat substitute in some snack foods.

Olestra is a fat substitute used in cooking and preparing foods, most commonly those foods that normally contain high concentrations of fat. French fries were one of the first commercially available products to have it used in their preparation. The benefit is the extreme lowering or complete elimination of the fat content of a traditionally fatty food. Like the insoluble fiber found in corn and apples, olestra is not digested or absorbed by the body and passes completely through the human digestive system.

Olestra, also known as Olean, was discovered by researchers Fred Mattson and Robert Volpenhein of Proctor & Gamble (P&G) in 1968. The original study, which surrounded fats that could be more easily digested by premature babies, led to contact P&G the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1971 to study the tests that would be required to manufacture and market Olean as a food additive, specifically as a fat substitute.

In tests that followed, P&G scientists noticed an interesting side effect when olestra was used to replace natural dietary fat. A reduction in the level of cholesterol in the blood resulted in the use of olestra. P&G subsequently filed an application with the FDA to market Olestra as a drug to treat high cholesterol. However, P&G studies failed to produce the 15% drop in cholesterol levels in quality olestra as a treatment.

It wasn’t until 1996 that the FDA finally approved Olestra as a food additive. The first product to use Olean as a shortening replacement was Frito-Lay’s WOW brand of potato chips. After their nationwide rollout in 1998, WOW chips were initially successful, increasing sales to over $400 million United States Dollars (USD). However, due in large part to reports of some unpleasant side effects that were later listed on an on-product health warning label as required by the FDA, sales have dropped dramatically.

Side effects, including loose stools, abdominal cramps, and Olestra’s interference with the body’s ability to absorb certain crucial vitamins, namely vitamins A, D, E and K, were enough to cut sales by half 2000 to $200 million USD. Although the intestinal side effects, which have come to be commonly referred to as “anal discharge” in the media, only occurred due to excessive consumption, it was enough to tarnish the product’s reputation and reduce consumer appeal. Citing further studies, the FDA decided the warning label was not warranted and approved its removal despite claims numbering over 20,000 for side effects. It has also been shown since the time of the original studies that Olean has no impact on the body’s ability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins.

Olestra, under the brand name Olean, is still used primarily as a fat substitute in the manufacture of some savory snack foods including Lays Light Chips, Doritos Light Snack Chips, Pringles Light Chips, Light Ruffles Chips, and Light Tostitos Cakes. The FDA declared Olean as “Generally Considered As Safe” (GRAS) in late 2008 for use in the production of prepackaged, ready-to-eat cookies using Olean BakeLean. BakeLean products are proprietary blends of olive and vegetable oils used as a substitute for butter, margarine and shortening in the manufacture of baked goods, reducing the calories and fat content of the final product by 75%. Olean is not approved for use or sale in Canada or the European Union.

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