The fat that's not a fat?

It looks like fat, tastes like fat, so it must be fat? Right? Wrong.
By now, you've probably tasted one of the products, perhaps ice cream or potato chips, made with the "fake fat" Olestra (trade name is Olean). Olestra has become a popular food additive because it can be used instead of fat while providing no calories.

Actually, Olestra is not a fat at all. It's a carbohydrate that has an oily texture and is similar to fat in taste. Because it's not a real fat, it doesn't hold up under high temperatures, therefore, it can't be used well in cooking and baking at home.

Although this is a great new product if you're trying to cut down on fat and cholesterol, there are some problems with its use. A major concern is that long-term use of Olestra may cause a deficiency of Vitamins A, D, E, and K which need fat in order to be absorbed and utilized. In addition, Olestra has been reported to cause severe side effects in some people such as diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and bloating. The product manufacturer, therefore, was asked to put warning labels on their packages like the one below:

Food is normally absorbed into the body through the small intestine, but Olestra is not absorbed. Instead, it gathers in the intestinal tract where it collects fluid until it's eventually eliminated in the stool. It's during this time before elimination that problems begin with diarrhea, gas, and painful cramping.

The FDA has been requested to ban Olestra because of the health problems associated with it. Proponents of the ban argue that Olestra is a food additive, not a natural substance found in food. While we expect to develop side effects from medications we take, we don't anticipate becoming ill from the food we eat. However, those who oppose the ban feel that Olestra should remain on the market because many people seem to be able to consume small amounts with no problem at all.

Some suggestions:

  • If you've never eaten products made with Olestra, begin by consuming a small amount to determine whether or not symptoms develop.
  • Keep the use of these products to a minimum.
  • It's best to eat foods containing Olestra in combination with other foods rather than on an empty stomach.
  • If you suffer from intestinal disease, you might want to check with your doctor first before consuming foods containing Olestra.

-Simplesse and Avicel are additives that are similarly being used as substitute fats.

-To date, there is no evidence that foods containing Olestra are beneficial in the prevention of obesity.

-Even though a food product may not contain fat, it still contains calories. Excess calories are converted by the body to fat. Therefore, cutting down on fat without cutting down on calories, will not result in weight loss.

-All fat, whether animal or vegetable fat, contain the same number of calories - 9 calories per gram.


Barbara Herondorf, L.D.