LESLIE SAVAN: The Olestra Complex
In the mid-'70s, the National Enquirer ran an item about yet another diet miracle -- but this one did indeed seem to be the ultimate. It was an oily substance that would coat your intestines "like Teflon," according to the man trying to market it. A tablespoonful before meals and anything you ate would slip right through -- you'd never be a calorie fatter! The bulimic dream of not having your cake and eating it too never seemed closer. However, nothing much came of this slimy concoction -- except maybe a draft of a screenplay based on it. It was a food disaster movie about an overweight female junk-food addict who falls in love with a skinny macrobiotic man. She belongs to a powerful but corrupt weight-loss organization lobbying for the intestinal Teflon, and he heads up the politically opposed Save Ourselves with Soybeans (S.O.S.). Although she finally loses a lot of weight, their love founders as their respective food groups clash over the FDA's impending approval of E.A.T. (as the gut goo is dubbed) and turn the streets of the nation's capital into a bloody battleground. (I admit this was my screenplay, but please indulge me--I've been waiting years to plug it and this may be my only chance.) That is, nothing much came of the innertube lube until now, with olestra, the Procter & Gamble product that will be coming to your intestines soon. For even back in the '70s, P&G was already developing the remarkably similar, if more constrained, diet miracle, the "fake fat" that will allow the fat in potato chips and corn curls to slip through your innards -- and you won't be a gram fatter! Who's to say that P&G wasn't also inspired by the Enquirer item...or even that the multinational didn't try to buy the indie inventor out? The P&G marketing director in charge of olestra denies ever hearing of the human chitlin coating: "It doesn't sound like anything I'd like to try," he sniffs. That's an odd bit of squeamishness, considering the source. Olestra may be no match for E.A.T. -- the former allows only fats attached to it to slide through your intestinal tract, rather than the whole chunk of food. Nor are the emotions set off by olestra quite so violent -- but the intestinal reactions may well be. "Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools," reads the tentative warning label (P&G prefers to call it an "information statement") that will appear on all olestra products. Flatulence and bloating are also in the olestran future as are, to a lesser extent, "anal leakage" (the goo seeping through) and "fecal urgency" (gotta go now!). But, shoot, they're worth it, because they just might make possible another American dream: the guiltless gorge. For now, the FDA has approved the use of olestra only in salty snacks; Proctology & Gambling will put it into its Pringles potato chips and make it available to other manufacturers under the brand name Olean. (It's as if after eating a lot of it, you'll wake up one day, suddenly notice you've lost 10 pounds, and exclaim, "Oh, lean!") If the FDA's required monitoring of the product goes well, P&G will apply to expand olestra's use into cooking oils, then French fries, then ice cream, then the world. And yet the potential dangers of olestra are far more serious than a national surge in farting. As olestra -- a synthetic compound of oil and sugars whose molecules are manipulated so that they can't be absorbed by the intestines -- travels through the body, it takes with it fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as vital nutrients like carotenoids. P&G says it is adding enough of those vitamins back to make up for the loss, but it's doing nothing to replace the depleted carotenoids. Carotenoids are widely believed to help reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases; the key element in tomatoes that fights prostate cancer, for instance, is a carotenoid. In a letter to the FDA, two doctors at the Harvard School of Public Health and 25 other health professionals wrote, "The long-term consequences of such a product...have not been studied directly, but there is strong reason to suspect that the effects will include increases in cancer, heart disease, stroke, and blindness." However, after examining more than 150 studies on olestra, the FDA gave it the go ahead. This despite the fact that all but one of those studies were done by P&G. (Its financial interest in olestra's outcome is staggering: P&G spent 25 years and $200 million developing the ingredient; by one estimate the rewards will eventually be an annual market worth $1 billion.) And despite the possibility that millions of people will be ingesting the stuff for decades, starting as children, the longest human study on olestra lasted only five months. The "fat-free fat" passed through the FDA, though not quite as easily as it does through guts. Five of the 20 voting members on the agency's advisory committee said nay to the only real motion on the floor, that olestra, when used as intended, carries "a reasonable certainty of no harm." Perhaps the assenting scientists believe that the health risks linked to obesity are more dire than the risks of olestra. After all, one out of three American adults is obese, up from one in four in 1980; and 22 per cent of children ages 6 to 17 are now overweight, up from 15 per cent a decade ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And yet, don't you already know deep in the pit of your stomach that Americans, after spending many years chowing down O-food, won't be a pound thinner? In fact, P&G's own studies show that olestra had no statistically significant effect on weight loss! The phenomenon of maintaining or even gaining weight on diet foods is old news: people compensate by simply eating more. "We're not making weight loss claims," says a P&G spokeswoman. "The benefits of olestra are taste and fat reduction." Still, P&G will happily cash in on the overall impression that olestra can help you lose weight. A quarter of a century to develop a billion dollar junk-food ingredient that could lead to more obesity and mass malnutrition in the land of plenty: Is this the apex of thousands of years of civilization? But the fat and scat stats merely hint at the larger binge-and-purge culture in which gorging becomes olestra. Olestra hits the media as if the media itself were not larded with emotional enticements to both pig out and slim down. The bulging, beckoning supermarket shelves; the ads that make us salivate at the sight of artificially glistening hamburgers; Ritz Air Crisps' frat-boy suggestion to "Inhale 'em!" -- all at first glance would seem to contradict another set of media messages. Those are the messages telling you, especially you gals, that unless you're as thin as a supermodel or other entertainment darling, you're woefully inferior -- and if, god forbid, you become fat by actually downing the grub that corporations tempt you with, you're not even in the game. These two trends may seem at odds, but they go hand in hand. Because together they grease more hands. First get 'em fat, then get 'em guilty about it -- vast amounts of wealth spark off the friction. First, there are billions in sales of all the foods we don't need; then there are billions more in all the products and services to undo the foods' effects. The diet foods, sodas, books, organizations, the gyms, workout equipment, liposuctions, and tummy tucks -- the diet industry is a $33 billion market. (P&G plays both sides beautifully: waving fattening foods before our open mouths, then hyping olestra as a way to annul the sins of excess, then, who knows, marketing Attends as the answer to olestra's aftermath?) Of course, we're not just insensate globs buffeted back and forth in this matter: We like the promise implicit in all the entreaties -- that consumption has no consequences. And when consequences inevitably come home to roost, we prefer the path of least resistance: we try to buy our way out of it. This dialogue between caving in to internal cues ("Yum, yum, tastes good!") and chasing after external cues ("Hey, baby, you look good!") and finding synthesis only in a purchase has rarely been stated more clearly than it is in a new ad for Frito-Lay's Baked Lays. Supermodels Vendela, Naomi Campbell, and Kathy Ireland are playing poker and wolfing down the chips, but because this foodstuff is baked, not fried, it has a little less fat. "You can eat like one of the guys" -- the voiceover says, pausing as Vendela smashes a mountain of chips into her mouth -- "and still look like one of the girls." It ends by upping the ante on its old tag line: "Betcha can't eat just one...bag." That's the riddle of commercialism: stuff yourself till you explode but look like a model (and become a good lay) by submitting to products. Frito-Lay, which controls half the $15 billion salty snack food market, says it will test market olestra later this year for possible use in its Lays, Ruffles, Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos, etc. The FDA's decision that olestra is relatively harmless depends on it being used as an adjunct, not a mainstay, of the diet. But don't eat-all-you-want pitches like Baked Lays' encourage even more, possibly deleterious nonstop noshing? Not at all, says a Frito-Lay spokeswoman. "People know how to have moderation in their diet." That's a gas! Perhaps the more trenchant question is, how does P&G -- the largest advertiser in the U.S. -- market an edible product now thoroughly associated with the ultimate negative image? (Au contraire, an acquaintance reminds: some people, desperate to shed any ounce they can, will find loose poop a plus.) "Clearly there's some negative publicity out there," the P&G marketing director answers like a politician, "but our plan is to focus primarily on the tastes that consumers are craving." Which makes one wonder about the deeper politics of O. For instance, did FDA commissioner David Kessler -- under deadly fire from the tobacco lobby for trying to rein in its advertising -- give thumbs up to olestra to blunt Republican complaints that he's a regulation-happy, overcautious foe of the free market? Will approving olestra make it any more likely that his tough-on-tobacco proposals will become law? Did he give the nod to olestra because it allows him, at least on occasion, to seem to be saying Oh, Yes! to pleasure?And talking about politics, where is the far right in this matter? It was apoplectic in the '50s when fluoride was put in the drinking water (dentists were tools of an evil plot in which the tooth-decay preventative would somehow make us soft on communism). But the right is utterly silent now as America's youth, once strong of spirit and pure of essence, become simply soft of bowel.Anyway, gotta go, and I'm not talking fecal urgency -- I have a food disaster movie to write!