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Only A Fathead Would Ban Fat Substitute From My Junk Food

All right, I’m self-indulgent. I like potato chips. I also like french fries. I eat apples during the day and enjoy a festive dinner of “lean cuisine.” Then I sneak out at night and buy ice cream at the friendly over-priced grocery store down the hill.
I bought a set of exercise equipment, thinking that might help. It’s stored in the basement like an abandoned torture chamber. I do work out – but only when the spirit moves me, which isn’t often. In the fall, as the cat adds fur, I add love handles.

This confession, I realize, is hardly unusual enough to get me on the “Jenny Jones Show.” Half of all adults in America and a fifth of our children are overweight, and my case is only marginal. But I probably would have ballooned up like the Michelin Man if it hadn’t been for the sugar and fat substitutes that food companies considerately began inventing just as I entered middle age. Diet drinks are approaching a third of the market in some areas. You have to look hard for the sugar behind the little pink and blue packets of sugar substitutes at the latte stands; but who’s looking?

Now, it turns out that the good people at Procter and Gamble Co. are nearing the end of a long, expensive effort to get Food and Drug Administration approval for “olestra,” a product that allows potato chips, tortilla chips and other “savory snacks” to be cooked with all the taste of the crunchy little devils we love today but with none of the fat and few of the calories. Soon enough, if the FDA agrees, olestra also can be used to prepare conscience-free french fries, peanut butter, cookies, cakes and ice cream.

Olestra is such an advance because, being a form of fat, it works exactly like regular fat to bring out the taste satisfaction of foods. Made from natural sugar and vegetable oils, the science comes in rearranging the fat molecule in such a complex fashion that the body ignores it. The olestra in potato chips, for example, simply goes through the system unannounced (as it were).

But the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., is not impressed. As one of the many watchdog groups originally bred by Ralph Nader, America’s Public Killjoy No. 1, the CSPI presently is campaigning to get the FDA to ban olestra. A decision is expected this month.

But the CSPI’s evidence is misleading. For example, it cites a study wherein five of 17 people who used olestra products came down with “diarrhea, gas, bloating (or) nausea.” Urp! That sounds bad. But CSPI doesn’t mention a far bigger and longer study of 3,357 consumers that found no differences in digestive effects between the olestra snacks and regular, full-fat snacks. It also claims that potato chips made with olestra may block absorption of certain vitamins, but neglects to note that the same is true of regular potato chips, and, for that matter, milk.

Although a few nutritionists have been summoned successfully to oppose FDA approval for olestra, most seem to agree with the Dean of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, Gilbert S. Omenn, that olestra “meet(s) a real public health need – reducing fat and saturated fat in our diet. This is important for reducing risks of heart disease and certain cancers, and for reducing weight.”

But CSPI’s pit bulls are still not impressed. When it comes to rating the food industry, these folks are binge-beaters. It was they who recently warned you against eating Italian food. And before that, Mexican food. And before that, Chinese food. And whatever you do, stay away from movie theater popcorn: too much fat and cholesterol.

The CSPI is so out of touch that it probably fails to realize that people are still eating the delicious, artery-clogging stuff at the movies and shunning the dreadful air-blown fluff the CSPI recommends. Yet it is olestra that holds the practical promise of taking the guilt out of movie popcorn. Olestra could do the same for the heavy sauces in the ethnic foods CSPI scorns. An anti-technology and anti-business bias prevents CSPI from drawing the obvious conclusion.

Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute suggests that the battle against olestra is part of a long trend. “Even as new food products replace more limited or less safe products, and Americans live longer and longer, the `command and control’ mindset of the left grows increasingly more paranoid.”

If not paranoid, at least unreasonable. “If we had our way,” CSPI’s executive director, Michael F. Jacobson, has said, “everyone would be dining on whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruit, along with low-fat dairy foods and maybe a little lean meat or poultry.”

Isn’t that generous? Maybe movie theaters should try selling big boxes of macrobiotic rice at their snack counters.

We gain further insight into the aims of the food puritans by reading the advice of “The Safe Shoppers Bible,” written by David Steinman and Samuel S. Epstein. The “safe shopping and cooking tips” in their mock-Bible promote “tofu burgers, tofu hot dogs, rabbit, pheasant and quail.”

Great. So, this is the message of the environmental food fetishists to America’s poor, yearning to breathe free in the their stretch pants stretched to bursting: “Let them eat quail.”

Coercive utopians derive their justification from putting others in the wrong. When government backs them, they succeed in denying enjoyment to the rest of us. Worse, they may endanger our health.

So here’s a directive from this citizen watchdog to the FDA: Pass the chips.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.