Stay Tuned/Sweeping Olestra Under the Rug

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

There was no column for 6 July 97, so I have put this, originally a sidebar item, into the space.

Sweeping Olestra Under the Rug
15 June 1997

[23 February 2007:] Like many of the other "single topic" articles here, this one is presented as a historical artifact. Read it, but be aware that things have changed since then. New information - some of which contradicts the previous information, as usual - is at the end.

One thing about the web is that it's chock full of information, but there's no verification mechanism; there isn't the sort of instant credibility check that would come, for example, if a historian or psychologist published a new book that was obviously slanted or perhaps even a pack of outright lies (The Bell Curve will serve as a nice example of both).

Corporations have caught on to this. They can basically say anything they want on the web. Nobody is going to come after them. The FDA and FTC provide some moderate watchdogging, but not much, and anyway web content can be changed so fast and leaves so little paper trail that enforcement is quite difficult.

Not that it's unusual for corporations, or anyone else promoting a cause or product zealously, to only show one half of the picture. This isn't lying, not even by my standards, and in the business world, it's considered good salesmanship. You don't tell the customers about the product's faults; you sell its strengths.

Nonetheless, there are a couple of cases which come dangerously close to crossing my personal Rubicon on sins of omission - cases where leaving out the "bad stuff" can cause serious consequences for the buyer.

Which, needless to say, is where olestra comes in.

Half the Picture

Procter & Gamble have a site devoted to olestra. Although it may pain you to do so, I suggest you say a protective incantation and surf it thoroughly before reading further. I'll wait here.

OK, let's be absolutely clear on this first: there is no way I am going to put olestra in my body. I live on the fringes of Cambridge, possibly the most earthy-crunchy community in the U.S. outside of Berkeley. I don't even think it's legal to buy olestra in Cambridge.

Having said that ... maybe you noticed that this is a really slick site. [23 February 2007: Well, it was when this article was written. It has changed a lot since then. See below.] The image map work is stunning. There's an amusing and self-parodying timeline, and a cute, seamless animation of an olestra molecule. It looks good.


Most of the quoted experts are obviously taken out of context, with quotes like "In our test subjects, olestra consumption was shown to reduce fat and calorie intake." Well, duh. Where's the rest of the report? No one, to the best of my knowledge, is disputing that olestra does what it says it's going to do. It's the other consequences that are going unmentioned here.

The linked sites are all pro-olestra. Several of the sites are listed only because they have articles backlashing against the Center for Science in the Public Interest for their olestra warnings. Now, I don't care for the CSPI much myself: they're whiny, they're frequently alarmists, and they're what Julia Child would describe as "scared of food." But a site with any sort of chutzpah would have provided a link to the CSPI findings as well.

Providing such an obviously skewed picture is bad P.R. in the long run. If you leave too much out, even the dumbest customer will realize that there's something you're not telling them. Then, not only will they get off their asses and find out what it is, they won't trust you afterwards.

Sweetness and Light

At least, that's the way I hope most people would react. Or maybe I have too much faith in humanity.

Certainly that's what happened to me with NutraSweet. For years I considered ranting about aspartame (NutraSweet is a brand name) to be the true badge of the nutrition zealot - you know the kind of person I mean, the kind who refuses to put anything in their body which contains fat, sugar, or any ingredient with more than four syllables.

I thought this because I knew that "aspartame is composed of two amino acids joined together" (aspartic acid and phenylalanine) and that one of the first things your body does, when digesting it, is separate the two amino acids, and your body cannot overdose on amino acids - an excess of any type of amino acid is discarded by the body. This is why it sometimes doesn't do any good to eat foods which contain amino acids, if it doesn't happen to have the type of amino acid(s) your body needs. (Food chemistry was the only subject I took a real interest in during my abortive college career.) So who could possibly have reason to fear aspartame (except, of course, that rare person with phenylketonuria)?

Well, as it turns out, everything in the preceding paragraph is true except the part in quotes, and therein lies the rub. Aspartame is not just two amino acids joined together. It also contains methanol. Now methanol is poisonous stuff. I have a zero-tolerance policy on it; when people say "it'll rot your brain" they mean it literally. The Nutra-Sweet people say that only tiny amounts of it are created, but who cares? Methanol - even little amounts - tends to cause slow, long-term, cumulative damage. Methanol is why winos who are so far gone as to slurp Sterno lose motor control and eventually get brain damage. As soon as I confirmed that free methanol is, indeed, released in the digestion of aspartame, that was it for me. No, thank you.

Fortunately, my lifetime consumption of aspartame was quite low, because of my policy on fake foods, which is basically that I'd rather exercise some self-control and eat less of the real thing than use a substitute.

It also seems that G.D. Searle (the drug lab which invented aspartame) didn't run proper tests on aspartame with respect to its breakdown in liquids, and that it may be breaking down in your diet cola in ways they didn't anticipate - or in ways that they deliberately tried to avoid anticipating. Some of the aspartame may recombine to form a third type of chemical, and I didn't bother reading what happens when that hits the body because the methanol was enough for me. Why not just add some methyl mercury to it? That way you don't have to wait as long for the brain damage to show up.

The FDA, normally one of my heroes, can take some blame for not looking into consumer complaints on aspartame, but it's not entirely their fault. They have been suffering from bureaucracy in the complaint-collection process. Also, many people don't realize that when they suffer adverse reactions to one of these food additives, the FDA is usually a better place to complain to than the company which makes it. I mean, come on, people ... if someone's food product makes your hair fall out, and you tell the company, do you really think they're going to shut down their own product? No! They're going to sweep it under the rug. You're paying for a government watchdog ... make them earn their keep.

Lifting the Rug

Back to the point, which is information concealment. Aspartame was created by G.D. Searle, but when you talk about the people who are actually selling it, you mean the NutraSweet-Kelco Corp., makers of fine food additives. And they, in turn, are owned by Monsanto, who also make Ortho pesticides, nasty BSTs for your milk, and quite a bit else. ([2007:] NutraSweet-Kelco is now the NutraSweet Company, and it claims no longer to have any connection with Monsanto. There also appears to be a company called Merisant which now owns Equal brand sweetener, but sorting out what connection it has to NutraSweet Co. - if any - is beyond me.)

Contrast their happy-speak on aspartame with some of the many anti-aspartame tracts on the web ([2007:] The best of the lot, which I had originally linked here, is now defunct, but a good search on "aspartame" or "NutraSweet" will net you many others, varying in rabidity, and also a whole ancillary mess, some of which I discuss at the bottom).

Now, I don't want to make you think I'm an utter zealot, so I'll wrap up here with a counterexample: I agree with the FDA that Simplesse, unlike olestra, is composed of existing foodstuffs (egg white and milk protein) which have been mechanically, not chemically, manipulated to create the "mouthfeel" that adding fats would produce. Simplesse is also a Monsanto product and I have no problem with it. (I do question fat substitutes on the "fake food" principle above - but if you have to have one, this one seems OK.) Simplesse seems to be a product with nothing to hide.

Pity that Monsanto doesn't exercise equal standards across the board.

[23 February 2007:] I don't mind picking on Monsanto above even if they are no longer owners of NutraSweet; they were the ones responsible for it initially, when all this broke. Also, I don't like them. I could pick on Monsanto's practices all day, but let's not digress.

Unfortunately, all these years later, this war is still being fought. I could go crazy trying to present you with a representative sampling of aspartame links. The Junk Science site says that aspartame causing cancer is bunk, but then links to the NutraSweet site as "more detailed technical information" - hardly a reliable second opinion. Then we have sites on the opposite end of opinion who are, shall we say, not exactly bolstering their own case with their presentation. Unka Cecil's people - and laugh if you will, but The Straight Dope always does its research - seem to agree with Junk Science that Dr. Olney is full of beans on the brain tumors, but they point out that doesn't necessarily prove that aspartame is 100% safe either, nor that everyone who's complained about health problems from aspartame is hallucinating. I throw up my hands in disgust.

Personally I don't use the stuff, not just because of my general dislike of fake foods, but because of a sort of inverse Pascal's wager: It costs me nothing to not eat aspartame, and may conceivably gain me something.

As for Olestra, you may have noticed that the web site doesn't sound like the one I was describing in 1997. In fact the tone has changed completely in the intervening years; the Olestra site could now best be characterized as "defensively paranoid." You will still not find any hint anywhere on the site that there might be another side to the story; but by this point the lady doth protest so much that only the dullest-witted consumer can fail to suspect that there might be something more here than meets the eye.

I don't know how well olestra-containing products have been doing; I do know that one of the early brands using it, Wow! chips, came and went like a flash here in 1998. Nowadays it is mostly snuck into "Light" products, of which the Olestra site will gladly provide you a list because "many consumers want to know how they can try snacks made with Olean and what products contain Olean brand olestra." I believe at least half of that sentence.

and now back to our program

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