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Published in the National Post (Canada)
July 25, 2000
Canadian regulators' decision to ban the fat substitute olestra runs against both scientific evidence and consumers' health, writes Henry I. Miller
Most North Americans are concerned about the health effects of too much fat. We cling to the hope that somehow, we can have it both ways: as many chips and as much ice cream as we want without suffering any consequences.
Now, there's good news on the fat front. For almost five years, American consumers have wielded a formidable weapon in the war against dietary fat--a cooking oil, called olestra, that adds no fat or calories to food. But the good news stops at the Canada-U.S. border. In Canada, olestra is banned.
Olestra is simply a molecule of table sugar, linked to soybean or cottonseed oil, that is too large for the body to absorb or digest. After analyzing copious data and consulting outside experts, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration became convinced of olestra's safety and approved the Procter and Gamble product for use in chips, crackers and other 'savoury snacks' in 1996. Since then, various products fried with olestra have been made by about a dozen companies.
In the United States, olestra has enjoyed monumental success, with more than 2.5 billion servings sold, many to repeat customers. If those consumers had opted to eat regular, full-fat chips instead of olestra-cooked chips, they would have consumed an additional 200 billion calories and 27,000 tons of fat.
Olestra can help lower the proportion of fat and saturated fat in diets, as well as cut calories. It is a potential boon to public health in North America, where one person in three is obese, where diets are dominated by fat and where three of the top four health concerns -- heart disease, cancer and elevated blood cholesterol -- are related to fat consumption.
The scientific data unequivocally argue the safety of olestra. Over the past 30 years, there have been more than 150 animal studies and 100 human clinical trials involving more than 24,000 adults and children, making it the most tested food substance in history.
While olestra causes mild gastrointestinal symptoms in a small number of consumers, the frequency is no greater than that for regular, full-fat chips. For example, a large clinical study conducted in 1996 by Johns Hopkins University researchers showed no statistically significant differences in the digestive symptoms of 1,000 moviegoers who consumed either olestra-cooked potato chips or full-fat chips (without knowing which they were eating). Like the rest of us, these test subjects couldn't eat just one: Median chip consumption was more than two ounces for both groups, and more than a quarter of the test subjects ate more than four ounces. (The typical single-serving bag of chips is about one ounce.) This definitive study was peer-reviewed before being published in 1998 in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
To further compare the gastrointestinal effects of olestra to another common food, researchers recently tested the effects of eating five-ounce servings of olestra chips against eating less than two servings of high-fibre bran cereal (a half cup). Published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology this May, the research shows that wheat bran samplers experienced more digestive side-effects than the olestra-chip snackers.
Despite these and other tests that show olestra-chip consumption causes no more severe or frequent problems than other common foods, the FDA was overly conservative. It permitted olestra only for fried snacks, although the product can be used instead of margarine, lard, butter and other oils in frying, baking and sauteing. Odourless and tasteless, olestra can also be used in bread, prepared rice and potato dishes, sauces, chips and candy.
North of the border, regulators at Canada's Health Protection Branch have just acknowledged that they quietly decided last year to keep olestra entirely off Canadian shelves. The regulators, who seem more swayed by the exhortations of food faddists than by data, cited the reduced absorption of certain vitamins, a characteristic of olestra that is neither unique nor worrisome. Other common foods, such as milk and tea, also bind vitamins and minerals.
Moreover, studies in progress at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle have found that adding vitamins to olestra snacks (done routinely in the United States) prevents any reduction in overall vitamin availability. The studies have also shown an association between olestra consumption and a decreased percentage of energy from fat; in other words, people are using olestra as an effective way to consume less fat.
The public health advantage of olestra is evident, given that four of the top five lunch/dinner entrees consumed in American homes could be made with less fat using olestra. For example, America's number-one favourite, pizza, could be made with olestra oil; ham and turkey sandwiches (numbers two and five, respectively) could benefit from a dollop of olestra mayonnaise; substituting olestra for peanut oil would reduce the fat content of peanut butter in a sandwich (number 3); and hot dogs (number 4) made with leaner meat could be enhanced by olestra's satisfying fat-like 'mouthfeel.'
Canadian regulators may have been reacting to the near-hysterical opposition to olestra orchestrated by a single radical group, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). For more than a decade, CSPI has forsworn both common sense and overwhelming scientific evidence in its war on the product. CSPI's executive director, Michael Jacobson, called olestra a 'public health time bomb,' adding that then-FDA commissioner David Kessler 'has lit the fuse' by approving the product. Mr. Jacobson appeared on ABC's World News Tonight to tell the American public that 'the only kind of label notice that would be acceptable to us would be a skull and crossbones.'
Why is CSPI doing this? It may be non-profit, but as a business, it's humming. Its budget is funded mostly by US$24-a-year subscriptions to its Nutrition Action Healthletter, a newsletter that has seen its circulation triple since 1991, to more than 800,000. Maintaining that figure requires a lot of hype. A Los Angeles Times article quoted Mr. Jacobson several years ago, advising one of his writers to employ more direct language by removing 'weasel words'--qualifiers such as 'suggests' and 'maybe.'
What Mr. Jacobson derides as 'weasel words' are, in fact, terms of scientific accuracy. On the other hand, 'directness' and smug certitude are not science, and where olestra's scientific merits are concerned, CSPI is way off base. The product has been shown unequivocally time and again to be safe throughout decades of animal studies and human trials.
We should not forget that CSPI is also the brown rice-and-carrot juice crowd that has warned us about the hidden cataclysms lurking in Mexican and Chinese food and movie theatre popcorn. How ironic, then, that this 'consumer' group continues to vilify a product that can help people reduce fat consumption in a society where fat ranks among the leading threats to public health.
The addition of olestra to our diets is tantamount to recognizing that lowering blood pressure reduces heart disease and stroke. As a solution to North Americans' constantly expanding waistlines and fat consumption, olestra is the closest thing we've got to a free lunch, and could help people adhere to the American Heart Association's recommendation to consume less than 30% of their total calories from fat.
The Canadian government's ruling represents the most lamentable kind of regulatory decision-making: unscientific, illogical, pre-emptive of consumers' freedom of choice, and punitive to a company that spent hundreds of millions of dollars in good faith to develop a safe and useful product.
Dr. Henry Miller is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and at the Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute. He is the author of To America's Health: A Proposal to Reform the Food and Drug Administration (Hoover Institution Press, 2000) and a former FDA official.; E-mail: email@example.com