WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 -- Starting a new era in potato-chip history, the Food and Drug Administration Wednesday approved olestra, a fat-like compound with no calories, for use in chips, crackers and other savory snacks. The FDA will require that snacks with olestra carry a label warning 'Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E, and K have been added.' Researchers at Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, stumbled on olestra during the 1960s while studying fat digestion. A substance unlike other ingredients in fat-free products now on the market, olestra cooks like regular fats but passes through the human body undigested. When made with olestra, a one-ounce bag of potato chips will have zero grams of fat and about 70 calories, versus 10 grams of fat and about 150 calories in regular potato chips, according to Procter & Gamble. An olestra version of Procter & Gamble's own Pringles potato chips is on the way, and the company plans to market olestra under the name Olean as an ingredient to other snack makers. All snacks will have to be fortified with four vitamins because olestra resembles regular fats so closely that it can reduce blood levels of fat-soluble substances by sweeping them along as olestra moves undigested through the body. The vitamins to be added back -- A, D, E and K -- are far from the only fat-soluble substances that could be removed from the body, commented Meir Stampfer, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.
He told United Press International that he worries about the effects of losing all these fat-soluble substances, like the carotenoids in fruits and vegetables. Even though carotenoids have not been proven essential or protective, 'there's strong suggestive evidence,' he said. For example, he speculated that someone crunching through olestra chips to accompany a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich might lose the carotenoid lycopene in the tomato, which has been linked to a reduced risk of prostate cancer. 'Why take the risk?' Stampfer said. 'I think this was an unwise decision.' Procter & Gamble spokeswoman Wendy Jacques responded that Stampfer had testified before an FDA advisory panel considering olestra. 'These questions have been reviewed and rejected,' she said. Food watchdogs at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest likewise criticized the FDA's decision. 'Besides contributing to disease (by removing potentially protective nutrients), olestra causes diarrhea and other serious gastrointestinal problems, even at low doses,' said Michael Jacobson, the center's executive director. Digestive issues have long proved controversial with olestra, and in a 1995 press conference reviewing concerns about the additive, Jacobson displayed photographs of stained underwear worn by people sampling olestra snacks. Jacobson identified the photographs as coming, through freedom of information requests, from Procter & Gamble's materials submitted to the FDA. 'That problem was fixed years ago,' said company spokeswoman Jacques. She explained they reformulated the product so that it had a different consistency at body temperatures. Jacques also dismissed concerns about potential digestive upset, saying that people react differently to foods already in the market. 'It's like beans or bran or broccoli,' she said. A company survey of several thousand adults who ate olestra snacks for five months turned up about 2 percent who reported digestive disturbances, according to Jacques. She said about the same percentage of people reported digestive troubles when eating ordinary snacks.