electronic Gourmet Guide

The Culinary Cyber-Sleuth:
Olestra and More


by Lynn Kerrigan


I think it's best to be up front about my lack of culinary skills. I'm a horrid cook. My idea of a gourmet meal is a marinated steak slapped into a frying pan. Though I understand the nuances of good cooking and appreciate the kitchen artistry of those so blessed, I'm a klutz when it comes to doing it myself.

So what's a culinary rube like me doing in a place like this? and more importantly, what can I offer you that will enhance your enjoyment of good food and cooking? Fair questions.

I'm a professional food snoop. You may often find me grocery store lurking-intently studying labels, comparing nutritional aspects and prices of various foods and taking profuse notes. The manager ducks when he spots me slinking through his aisles, because without fail I'm in his face with pesky questions. I test new products, pester food companies about what makes their products "new and improved" and scan industry publications for news that consumers should know about. In short, I gather, compile, digest and spit out culinary information.

I'll show you how much nutrition your food dollar buys. You'll find out how and where to get culinary freebies including recipe booklets, newsletters, nutrition charts and even videos. You'll discover ways to get more bang from your food buck and get the low-down on new food products. We'll even explore ways of making extra income from your cooking talents.

This is an interactive column. I invite your suggestions for future articles and comments about existing ones. Just e-mail me at PageOne1@[email-address-removed]. I'll reward any suggestions I use with a bunch of recipe brochures. Now on to the good stuff:

Free Newsletters For Cooks


This four page, full color quarterly publication is free for the asking. Published by Martini & Rossi, the makers of vermouth it contains some interesting recipes. Call 1-800-972-2784.

5:15 Club Newsletter

Sonoma, a maker of dried tomato products offers this free resource of quick (15 minutes or less) and easy recipes that use only five ingredients. Send your name and address to: 5:15 Club, 4791 Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg, CA 95448.

Beano Bulletin, a promotional publication of the makers of Beano, the food enzyme dietary supplement that aids in the digestion of gas-producing foods offers healthy ideas and healthy recipes. Rodale Press, publisher of Prevention Magazine, produces the newsletter. For a free subscription and sample of Beano call 800-257-8650.

New Products

Fatty Indulgence without Guilt?

Olestra. Olean. Sucrose polyester. Calorie free fat. Whatever it's called, it's the most controversial new food product to hit the market since saccharin. Major newspapers, magazines and scientific journals have written about it. Consumer groups, scientists and nutritionists have argued against it. We may see it on the grocer's shelves as early as this summer in the form of a new kind of Pringles potato chip.

Proctor and Gamble, olestra's developer has bet the farm on this fat substitute-a farm costing over $200 million dollars. It's taken over two and a half decades to create, test, perfect and gain FDA approval. It's a dream product, not only for its maker but for fat conscious people everywhere. For P&G it promises a billion dollar market potential within ten years. For millions of fat shirking Americans it provides a guiltless way to enjoy potato chips and other fatty snacks.

What Is It?

Olestra is an innovative compound of fatty acids and sugar whose molecular structure is so large the human body can't digest it. It tastes like fat, has the mouth-feel of fat and gives the same satiation value as fat. It's the first fat substitute that doesn't break down when heated, meaning it can be used to make cakes, French fries and any other recipes calling for fat. But it adds no fat or calories to the diet.

The Good News

It's cholesterol free, fat free and has zero calories. It's suitable for deep frying and tastes remarkably similar to real fat.

The Bad News

So, what's the controversy? Well, for one, ingesting olestra based products may stain your underwear. There's no delicate way to phrase olestra's propensity to soar through the digestive system like a well-oiled missile and land at home port. P&G calls the effect "anal leakage" and lessened its consequence by "stiffening" the formula. Other inconveniences include possible flatulence, intestinal cramping and loose stools.

The Really Bad News

As it zooms through the body unabsorbed, it carts off other fats and fat soluble vitamins with it. P&G plans to fortify olestra based products with these vitamins (A, D, E and K) to compensate.

But they won't replace the fat soluble cartenoids, a group of 500 nutrients found mainly in fruits and vegetables. These chemicals float in our bloodstream and may benefit our health and help prevent disease. Olestra robs these from the body as well. One study showed that eating as little as 3 grams (or six olestra laced potato chips) of olestra can deplete the body's cartenoid levels as much as 40%. Harvard School of Public Health epidemiologist, Meir J. Stampfer who urged the FDA to reject olestra, told Consumer Reports that problems caused by depletion of cartenoids may take decades to show up in the population.

Groups that lobbied against approval of olestra include the American Public Health Association, the National Woman's Health Network, American Academy of Ophthalmology and Ralph Nader's Center For Science in The Public Interest. An article in the February issue of Consumer Reports states: "We don't believe olestra should become a staple ingredient in the food supply—even though its use in chips alone may not pose a major hazard to the public."

The FDA admits that Olestra's gastrointestinal and nutrient blocking effects are inconvenient and unpleasant. Even though they contend these effects are harmless, olestra containing products will require a warning label regarding "loose stools and abdominal cramping." Though troubled by the cartenoid question, the FDA felt this problem insignificant since olestra is confined to snack foods.

There have been no long term studies on the effects or impact of olestra on humans. The longest study on a group of pigs lasted 39 weeks. I doubt if I'll participate in the testing of its long term effects on human health when it hits the supermarket shelves later this year. Though I'm committed to a low fat diet and enjoy potato chips as much as the next guy, I have a thing about stained panties and I don't want anything stealing my cartenoids.

Text Copyright 1996 Lynn Kerrigan. No portion of this article may be reproduced for publication without express, written permission of the author.


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