Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed May 1996
Copyright ©1996 by Amanda B. King

The Selling of Olestra: Starvation by Choice?

By Amanda B. King
Amanda B. King of Washington, D.C., just finished her junior year at Brown University.

"The solution to problems of overweight is not the consumption of products such as Olestra, which have negative nutritional value, but the development of responsible and moderate consumption patterns as well as healthier ideas about nutrition."

The passage by the FDA of an ordinance allowing the sale of Olestra is an irresponsible act whose consequences will be felt in the declining nutritional status of Americans and in the American mindset concerning consumption, nutrition and body image. The FDA is allowing the marketing of a product that has been inadequately tested and has been shown to have adverse effects on both the human gastrointestinal system and the ability to absorb important nutrients. The phenomena of Olestra and other dietary food products demonstrates the widening gulf between developing nations which struggle to feed their populations and the United States, where even with an excess of food, not everyone is adequately or nutritiously fed.

Olestra was developed by Procter and Gamble as an artificial fat substitute that could be used in diet snacks such as potato chips. The substance, which is a sucrose polyester, has the same taste and cooking properties as regular fat, but is designed so that due to its molecular size, it cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream and passes right through the digestive tract. One adverse consequence is abdominal cramping and diarrhea. Another problem is that Olestra absorbs the lipid-soluble vitamins and nutrients in food and takes them right along with it. This can cause the loss of vitamins A, D, E and K, along with substances called caretenoids, which have been linked to cancer and blindness prevention. Although Procter and Gamble will supplement the product with vitamins, there are problems deciding which vitamins to add and how much is necessary. Although years of research were conducted on Olestra, the longest study of the product's effect on children lasted for only seven days.

American patterns of consumption often do not demonstrate adequate nutritional knowledge. Problems such as obesity and anorexia are considered to be medical disorders, but are also strongly related to cultural trends. Social pressures to diet have caused a huge surge in the development of low-cal and fat-free foods. Unhealthy concepts of nutrition are often passed from parents to their children, especially parents concerned about obesity and heart disease. According to Robert E. Olson, professor of pediatrics at the University of South Florida, "the optimal fat intake (for children) cannot be determined but 30 to 40 percent of calories seems sensible for adequate development." From his research of malnourished children in the United States, he concludes that "in developing countries, poverty and limited access to foodstuffs remains a major factor in the growth and development of children,. In developed countries on the other hand, access to foodstuffs should not be a concern, but increasingly certain health worries, practices and beliefs held by the parents can restrict a child's nutrition to the point of dwarfing and malnutrition."

The solution to problems of overweight is not the consumption of products such as Olestra, which have negative nutritional value, but the development of responsible and moderate consumption patterns as well as healthier ideas about nutrition. It is ironic that in a "developed" country like the United States, there are citizens who have the nutritional intake of those in developing nations, sometimes, but not usually by choice. The problems of vitamin A deficiency and diarrhea are common in developing nations, where they often lead to blindness and the death of children. It is absurd that even where there is an abundance of foodstuffs, people should choose to consume a product that recreates these same symptoms of malnutrition. The unknowing consumption of Olestra by poor, malnourished people in the United States could be the most damaging consequence of the FDA's action, especially if Olestra were added to cheap foodstuffs and purchased and consumed by people unaware of its effects.

To avoid these problems, it is not enough for the FDA to enforce stricter testing and regulation of unhealthy foodstuffs. There must also be increased education about nutrition and promotion of healthy and moderate eating habits. In the United States, as is specified in the International Bill of Human Rights, everyone should be guaranteed the right to food of a quality and quantity that ensures health and well being. Olestra jeopardizes that right for all those who consume it.