[June 11th, 1998]

The Battle for Digestive Freedom: CSPI, Olestra, and you.

Olestra is a fat substitute invented over 20 years ago. It is one of the most studied food substitutes ever. Olestra is made by modifying normal vegetable oil in such a way that it is not digested, and passes through the intestines harmlessly.

The advantage of Olestra is that foods containing it are essentially fat-free. Proctor & Gamble originally sought approval from the FDA for its use as a cholesterol-lowering drug, since the reduction of saturated fat in diet is the most important step in reducing cholesterol, and thus, the chance of developing heart disease.

In 1996, the FDA approved Olestra for use in certain types of snack foods. Test trials were performed in two U.S. cities. I had the luck of living in one of the two cities: Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

I have moderate essential hypertension ('high blood pressure'), which has been controlled by drugs for several years. High blood pressure kills slowly, usually in concert with high cholesterol levels. The cholesterol contributes to the blocking and hardening of the arteries, and the heart ends up working harder and harder to pump blood through the body. This make the heart grow in size - if left untreated, the heart will become too large to work efficiently, and will eventually fail. It's called a heart attack, and it's caused by the heart's inability to feed its own muscle tissue with oxygen.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. It kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. That's why it's important that we control our high blood pressure and cholesterol.

I like Doritos, I've been eating them all my life. Doritos normally have a significant amount of saturated fat in them - though not as much as regular potato chips. However, whenever I eat Doritos I have pangs of guilt. I know I shouldn't eat them, but I do anyway. This is a choice that I make of my own free will.

When 'Doritos Max' (as they were called during the test trials) came to Cedar Rapids, I dived into them with gusto. I would buy a bag of them about every week. Sometimes I'd take a few days to eat the bag, sometimes I wouldn't take quite so long (I do the same thing with regular Doritos). The Olestra Doritos tasted identical to the real thing. I've been eating diet and fat-free foods for years, and I've never had anything this good, this close to the real thing.

I noticed no side effects from eating the Doritos. No cramping, no nausea, no hives, no alien visitations... nothing. Except for the missing guilt, it was just like eating the real thing.

During this time, the Center for Science in the Public Interest was trying to stir up resistance to Olestra. The CSPI wants Olestra banned in this country - they claim it has side effects, like abdominal cramping and diarrhea, and that it is unsafe in the hands of the public. CSPI placed advertisements in the Cedar Rapids newspaper looking for people who claimed to have trouble with Olestra - hardly a scientifically rigorous sampling method.

Olestra doesn't cause any trouble for me. Perhaps it upsets the stomachs of some, maybe it even gives some people diarrhea. I have an answer for this: Don't Eat It. The claimed affects of Olestra sound a lot like what apples do to me. I don't eat apples because they send me to the bathroom. If Olestra sends you to the bathroom, don't eat it. Exercise your freedom of choice.

CSPI wants to force the government to take away my freedom of choice, and that makes me angry.

Just today (June 11, 1998), CSPI made another 'press release' about Olestra. In their typical hyperbolic style, they claimed that Olestra causes cancer. Here's their line of reasoning:

  1. Consuming Olestra reduces absorption of a certain class of vitamins (the carotenoids).
  2. Recent studies suggest that carotenoids can reduce the incidence of cancer.
  3. People eating Olestra won't get as much carotenoid vitamins, and will have a higher incidence of cancer.
Their conclusion: Olestra will kill 50,000 people per year. This is about how many people die in car accidents on our roads. I'll let you be the judge of the quality of their reasoning.
  1. The FDA forces companies to include extra vitamins along with any Olestra-containing food. But even if they didn't, an aware consumer that cares about their vitamin intake could simply adjust it appropriately.
  2. 'Suggest' is the key word here. These are new studies, and certainly not enough to justify banning an important food substitute.
  3. Again, the studies aren't conclusive, and even if they turn out to be correct, the affect of Olestra can be nullified by taking more of the vitamins. (which you do automatically when eating FDA-approved Olestra foods).

But piddling with these details misses the big picture. Remember heart disease? Yeah, the whole reason that people are eating less fat? What CSPI fails to discuss in their rantings is the cost of NOT eating Olestra. In other words, without a suitable fat substitute, many people will just go on eating fat, develop heart disease, and die from heart attacks.

And CSPI's all-out war with Olestra discourages other companies from developing and testing other fat substitutes, a process that is hugely expensive and time-consuming. In other words, they help to stifle the innovation that could solve the entire problem.

Thanks for caring, CSPI, but No Thanks.