A Fat Free Future – Fat Chance?

Every dieter dreams of being able to gorge on chocolate, crisps, biscuits, cakes and chips without the evidence accumulating on the hips or in the arteries. The development of a successful low calorie, low cholesterol, fat substitute has long been the dream of the food industry.

Sugar substitutes, hailed as the slimming breakthrough in the 1960s, proved a problem, with cancer scares (subsequently disputed and, in some cases, disproved) over both saccharin and cyclamates. Artificial sweeteners also turned out to be a red herring for those fishing for a substantial weight loss. Because of its highly concentrated calorific value, the fat in biscuits, cakes, chocolate, and so on is more likely to make the sweet-toothed more plump than the sugar they consume.

It is now widely acknowledged that fat is the major dietary culprit implicated in both overweight and heart disease. Low fat diets are recommended not only for patients with weight, heart and gallbladder problems but to counteract cancer, diabetes and a host of other ailments. Reports by both the National Advisory Committee on Nutrition Education (NACNE) and the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food (COMA) recommended a substantial cut on the fat consumed in the average British diet.

But cutting back on fats is not so easy. “Fat,” says Professor Douglas Georgala, director of food research for the Agriculture and Food Research Council, “has a lubricating effect in the mouth which makes eating foods which contain it a particularly attractive sensory experience. People become addicted to fats, and the way they make things, such as chocolate, melt in the mouth. Fat also carries flavor. Its appeal should not be underestimated.”

So the announcement last month that a protein-based, low-calorie fat substitute would be available to the food industry this year, and could appear in British supermarkets in a dessert, salad dressing or dip before the end of l990, seemed to herald a new age of hope for despairing dieters.

Simplesse, from the American Monsanto Corporation, parent company of Nutra-Sweet, is a dairy-based fat substitute containing egg white, condensed skimmed milk, water, sugar, pectin, lecithin and citric acid. It cannot be heated, but can be substituted for some or all of the fat in mayonnaise-type dressings, ice-“creams”, dips, “buttercream”-style cake icings and other savory or sweet spreads and desserts.

“Whereas the normal Thousand Island dressing might have 70 calories a spoonful,” says Penny Wright, of Daniel Edelman, the public relations company handling Simplesse in Britain, “one made with Simplesse would have only 25 calories. And it tastes delicious. It has the `mouth feel’ of fat.”

But Simplesse itself will not go on to the supermarket shelves, she says. It will be available only as an ingredient to the food industry to be used in products, which will be clearly labelled.

Its major rival on the horizon is Proctor & Gamble’s Olestra, a non-digestible sucrose polyester, a blend of vegetable oil and sucrose chemically bonded, which can also be used for frying, baking, in soups, gravies, chocolate and most other forbidden fatty treats. Not only does it provide no calories itself, since it is not metabolized and passes through the system like the feasts of slimmers’ fantasies, it is also claimed by its makers “to reduce the absorption of dietary cholesterol”, which is said to dissolve in the Olestra and be carried out of the body.

But Olestra, which seems like the answer to a fatty’s prayer since it has more potential applications, is being held back from the market by the American Food and Drug Administration and Britain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods until it has been more completely investigated.

A MAFF spokesperson says: “Simplesse is classed as a food because it is made of common food proteins, modified in a purely physical way, and it must merely comply with Food Act regulations. Olestra, however, is a new chemical compound and is classed as a food additive which needs additional approval from the Food Advisory Committee, which is looking at it now.”

Professor Paul Turner, a toxicologist at StBartholomew’s Hospital, London, is, like Georgala, on the Food Advisory Committee, which has Olestra’s fate in the balance. He is also chairman of the MAFF’S toxicity committee. Encouragingly, he envisages “no serious safety problem” in fat substitutes such as Olestra or Simplesse, but wonders about their long-term nutritional consequences if relied upon to excess.

“You must remember what happened with micro-proteins (meat substitutes, such as Quorn, added to bulk-out products), which were originally intended to be used only as supplementary sources of protein. Now they have become the whole content of certain pies,” he says.

“And not only are fats solvents which can be a vehicle for undesirable residues, but they carry the fat-soluble vitamins. The effect of eliminating fats completely from the diet would have to be watched very closely.”

Georgala agrees: “Some slimmers are desperate people who will exceed recommendations, which is something the safety assessors have to take into account.”

In the United States, more serious worries about the safety of Olestra have surfaced. Dr Michael Jacobson, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says: “We have asked the FDA not to approve Olestra because its effects have not yet been adequately studied. Usually, food additives are studied in rats and mice, and Olestra was studied only in rats until recently, when a study in mice was started which will take several years to complete.

“The rat studies have indicated some potential problems such as changes in the liver and even without a possibility of these changes causing cancer we are concerned about something that causes changes in the liver. Pituitary tumors have also been found. No one knows why, because it is not supposed to be absorbed, but lack of absorption does not always mean safety.”

Since fats are solvents which carry toxins through the body (one of the reasons a fatty diet might be implicated in some types of cancer) as well as vitamins, they may still act as transporters even if they are not being absorbed, Jacobson speculates.

A spokesman for Proctor & Gamble in Britain says that “my company is aware of these problems and has addressed them”, and that “the product has been very extensively tested”.

Most potential fat substitutes have come from obesity-obsessed America. Exceptions include the starchy maltodextrins from the British Natural Starch Company, an offshoot of Unilever, and a potato starch compound from Holland called Piselli SA2.

Olestra is unique in that it is the only one which is not metabolized, says Dr Simon Holmes, director of the Leatherhead Food Research Association, which has produced an extensive study of the literature on fat substitutes (Pounds 80 to non-members, Pounds 60 to members).

The report divides them into three categories: “The main substitutes”, which include Olestra, Simplesse and the early starchy, sugary substitutes such as maltodextrins, polydextrose and polyglycerol ester, which have been used in low-fat spreads and slimmers’ ice-creams in Britain and America; “Newer candidates”, still largely on the drawing-board, such as NutriFat and Olestrin, both from the newly-formed Reach company in America, and a blend of carbohydrates and proteins; and “Other proposed fat substitutes”, which include the waxy jojoba oil used in hair and skin preparations, and an intriguing-sounding product called N-Flate which, according to Holmes, is composed of starchy mixers including guar gum. Guar gum and locust bean gum were used in slimming pills which were banned in Britain last year because they were supposed to swell in the gut to dull the appetite but could cause potentially lethal obstructions. It was claimed that they “soaked up calories” one of countless promises believed by people desperate to lose weight at any cost.

When, in the l970s, Americans were told that saccharin might cause cancer, angry dieters protested against the FDA’s ban, demanding the right to make their own choice.

There is no doubt that people are dying to get their mouths around fatless fatty treats, whatever the consequences. “I think it will take at least three or four years for Olestra to get through if it does,” Jacobson says. “But other companies have other chemicals already under test. Sooner or later a successful fat substitute will be approved.”

Even sooner might seem too late for some. But if it’s any crumb of consolation, the 1990s have been predicted to become a decade of comfort cooking, “couch potatoes” and more comfortably upholstered figures.

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