McALLEN — Wanna pig out without porking out?
Have a Wow! chip from Frito-Lay.
That was the word in the late 1990s when the company began making a new line of potato chip with olestra, a fat substitute. The Food and Drug Administration approved the new substance in 1996, providing a way for making truly fat-free potato chips, tortilla chips, cheese puffs, popcorn, crackers and numerous other snacks. The Olean.com Web site, (Olean makes olestra), says olestra gives snacks the full flavor produced by fat, but it cannot be digested or absorbed into the system.
But, not so fast. Juliet Gonzalez, a registered dietitian and owner of Nutritional Associates of South Texas, said olestra has also been known to cause gastro-intestinal problems, including abdominal pain, cramping and loose stools. It can also create problems in the absorption of Vitamins A, D, E, and K, which are fat-soluble.
“If a person has a loose stool, they are unable to absorb those vitamins,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not a good idea for consumers who already have existing digestive problems.”
However, Frito-Lay still uses olestra to make its light potato chips. (The name of the Wow! chip changed to light in 2004), said Aurora Gonzalez, corporate spokesperson.
“Based on the FDA’s thorough, thorough review, they concluded there are no more gastro-intestinal effects than what can be attributed to other foods that people eat,” she said. “That’s according to the FDA.”
The Olean Web site says the olestra is one of the most studied food ingredients ever.
“As research has shown time and again, the digestive changes associated with consuming Olean are not different from effects associated with other safe foods,” says the Web site. “Many medical doctors and culinary experts support the use of olestra-based products.”
A recent trip to a grocery store revealed found that Pringles Potato Chips has its original, sour cream and onion, and barbecue-flavored chips made with olestra. The reduced-fat sour cream and onion had 140 calories, as opposed to the same flavor of chips made with olestra, which had 70 calories.
However, Jorge Vela, owner and operator of Explosive Fitness Personal Training Studio in McAllen, said he’s spoken to a number of people who tried to lose weight by consuming products made with olestra. Many of them reported problems.
“It makes you pretty regular,” he said. “If you were having problems having a bowel movement, it’s going to have that kind of a feeling, almost where you have to get to the restroom a little more often. It kind of almost goes right through you. You’re losing fluids and nutrients.”
Of course, everybody’s digestive system is different, but that has been a very common complaint from many of his clients using olestra.
“As far as utilizing it, I try and see if they can just cut back on the fats and use some of the healthier fat,” he said.
Olestra, according to the olean.com Web site, is made from vegetable oil and ordinary table sugar. It has no calories because “its structure prevents digestive enzymes from break it down.”
The Web site goes on to compare the consumption of olestra to eating apples, corn and bran, in which the insoluble fiber is not broken down by the body. Olestra passes through the digestive tract without adding any calories. The olestra molecules are much larger that fat molecules, so the body’s digestive enzymes don’t break them down.
However, Gonzalez doesn’t feel olestra provides any real benefit, even to those trying to lose weight and reduce their fat intake.
“To me it’s an empty calorie,” she said. “Being a health-care professional, that’s just kind of a band-aid on the way to your goal. On the short term, it’s more of a marketing sell; the people are looking where to spend their money.”
Gonzalez said people would do better to learn how to shop as well as eat wisely.
“People walk in and start from the vegetable sections and get all around to the meat and the register and they’ve been bombarded with light and reduced, low fat, fat free, and you don’t even know what it means,” she said. “A lot of people, just for the fact that they see that it’s fat free, they are going to buy this product not thinking that ‘I could be losing vitamins.’ There’s a better way to go about it.”
Travis Whitehead covers features and entertainment for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4452. For this and more local stories, visit www.themonitor.com.