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Olestra: Are You Safe Or Sorry?

A consumer group wants the fake fat olestra to be taken off the market, or severely restricted, on grounds it has made thousands of people sick.

Yet CBS 'This Morning' Contributor Dr. Bernadine Healy is defending olestra. Dr. Healy claims that problems with digestion "relates to how much you consume," and that "in moderate amounts, it does not seem to be a problem."

Dr. Healy backs up this claim by citing a study published by the Journal Of the American Medical Association, which conducted a study supported by the company that makes the chips. The study gave half the participants chips with olestra and half without. In each group, 15 percent of the people complained of indigestion, regardless of the type of chips they consumed.

Warning labels for potato chips and other products made with olestra say the zero-calorie fake fat can cause unpleasant gastrointestinal effects, including cramps and diarrhea, and can block absorption of certain nutrients. Dr. Healy agrees that the vitamins E, D, and K may have difficulty being absorbed. But, she adds, "These chips are not staples or health foods. You shouldn't be eating them all day, and they shouldn't interfere with the vitamins."

But the Center for Science in the Public Interest argued Wednesday that those warnings are not enough. Citing a handful of consumers who sought emergency-room treatment for those effects, CSPI said olestra is a "gamble with health."

It has filed petitions with the Federal Trade Commission, charging that olestra advertising is misleading because it does not disclose side effects.

Olestra, sold as the brand Olean, is a synthetic chemical made of sugar and vegetable oil that passes through the body undigested. Dr. Healy explains that olestra molecules are so large that they cannot be broken down by the digestive system. Therefore, they travel through the body without leaving any calories behind.

The Food and Drug Administration says olestra is safe but that concerns will be publicly debated next week when its independent food advisory committee spends three days re-examining olestra. The panel will look at 6,700 side-effect reports filed with the FDA, as well as olestra's nutrient impact.

Asked if children and pregnant women should avoid eating olestra products, Dr. Healy replies, "Let the adult go first and keep it away from the children for a while... The key thing is, we don't need food police. But we need information and choice."

Manufacturer Procter & Gamble and Frito-Lay, which makes chips with olestra, vigorously defend the product.

Since 1996, tens of millions of people have eaten more than 500 million servings of olestra-made chips, the companies say. Only about one in 50,000 people report of any complaint, and the vast majority are mild stomach upset, they say.

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