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olestra: fat free for the next century, whee!

oh lean! if you fry chips in oil made with olestra (like "olean") the chips taste like regular oily chips, but the fat will not stick to your innards. instead, the fat oil wells up in you and leaks out your ass. so here's a technology choice: would you rather be fat or have crude oil stools?

olestra, sucrose polyester, is Proctor & Gamble's latest offering to fatty tasting but actually not entirely unhealthy american diet deceptions. the quest remains, in the midst of this glorious cornucopia of available consumables, how can we avoid the toll on the body of overconsuming fat and sugar laden foods coupled with historically low physical activity levels?

science steps up with an answer, a product, olean, based on olestra, a fat free fryable oil:

"At the start of this century, Crisco was a good idea for healthier eating," said John E. Pepper, P&G Chairman and Chief Executive. "On the eve of the next century, a fat-free, calorie-free cooking oil from the makers of Crisco is an even better idea, and snacks are a great place to start."
- www.olestra.com, Proctor & Gamble, 1998
fat free for the next century - sounds like the launch of a lunar liposuction lander. snacks are indeed a great place to start because they are the kind of disposable cheap foods that are widely distributed.

since olestra, in its popular form the cooking oil "olean," has not become widely available much beyond certain test sites, it is difficult to sort out decisive consumer opinion on the product. most of the information readily available is proctor & gamble proctorgambla and uninformed consumer impression. judging both by my friends' sense of olestra and www.olestra.com, proctor & gamble has some seriously poor press to contend with. at their web site, they greet olestra critics with science - it is a battle of duelling experts, and duelling priorities. this gem lurks in the midst of their fat free olestra information site:

I've heard some people say Olean may cause "anal leakage." Is this true?

No, eating Olean snacks will not cause "anal leakage." Olestra went through 25 years of research before being approved by the FDA. During this time, as with any development process, olestra was continually evaluated and improved. While some people did experience oil loss with the very early forms of olestra, it was addressed and corrected before FDA approval. Olestra is manufactured to a FDA required specification to control oil loss.

- commonly asked questions: anal leakage, www.olestra.com, Proctor & Gamble, 1998

my own reaction to olestra, when i first heard of it, was to be immediately suspicious. when i began my olestra information hunt online, and met this Proctor & Gamble response, i figured anal leak rumours reflected understandable consumer superstition. fake fat? it's got to be bad for you. perhaps there were early widely circulated reports of "anal leakage" linked to olestra consumption, it nicely embodies the sense that we might be replacing one malady (overweightedness) with another (anal leakage).

probably not much worse for you than msg!

but the language of Proctor & Gamble boosting the fat substitute, and the food scientists defending them has a bold certainty that denotes some kind of standoff. i quickly discovered, once i left www.olestra.com, the claims from Proctor & Gamble on one side boosting olestra to the status of societal betterment are well matched on the other side by parodic reverence for the miracle fat substitute, in these haiku and this limerick:

Olean has made me
Thin but unapproachable
Gaseous force-field
-Sean Medlock
She's so beautiful
But she stained my upholstery
At least she's not fat
- Sean Medlock
Guiltlessly gobbling greasy chips
No it's not carmex that's shining our lips
Its olestra, a disaccharide
that wont make your butt wide
and will bypass your belly and hips

With your ever decreasing adipose tissue
Your size 10 jeans will start to miss you
You'll be equated
with the Sports Illustrated
Annual swimsuit issue

- Dr. Jennifer A. Travers

From Grassy Knoll to
Assy Hole -- could Olestra
Have slain JFK?
- Shakma
Haiku obsession
Uncontrollable urges
Deride Olestra
- rclsgi.eng.ohio-state.edu
from the Olestra Haiku / Olean Haiku / Z-Trim Haiku page
the consumers here have adapted the claims and even product promotion language of the company to evidence otherwise hushed up or calmly addressed side effects and lampoon them as extraordinarily unforgiveable. there are literally hundreds of olestra/anal leak haikus (somehow haiku being the spontaneous media form that best suits this strange situation).

if olestra allows us to consume all the chips we desire, quite a miracle to be sure, could not this same chip have killed JFK?

olestra bag warning

on each bag of chips will be this warning:

This Product Contains Olestra. Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E, and K have been added.

the problems were tested first hand by John Hargrave, at his infamous media criticism site zug. he orders several bags of the new "max" (or "wow") series of olestra augmented chips, offered by Frito Lay, from the only supermarket in the us that stocks them, somewhere in Ohio(?). he plans to eat a bag or two of chips a day for at least a week, and wear the same underwear throughout to document possible anal leak (photos of these undergarments to be provided online as ongoing evidence).

(other variables such as diet and typical bowel movement consistency are not listed, so they are assumed to be uncontrolled; aside from the chips, we assume mr. hargrove maintained his typical diet and does not normally experience problems with anal leak.)

after four days of happy fat free consumption, this emerges:

One taste of these chips, and Jade was in love. It was junk food without the junk! We wolfed through the rest of the bag, and all was forgotten.

Until that night, when I took a trip to the bathroom to meet the baker. Friends, the creature that emerged from my insides was borne in the pits of Hell and reared in the suburbs of Detroit. This foul monster was so excruciatingly wet and smelly that my eyebrows singed, paint peeled from the walls, and the mirror steamed up. ...

On the bright side, there was no pudding in my pants.

- John Hargrave, "olé olestra!", day 4

up to this point, john's olestra diary reflects shock at the agreeable taste and lack of the typical weightiness one feels after consuming one or two full bags of fried chips. his wife is brought in on the miracle, and she, jade, enjoys her consumption as well. unfortunately, his bowel movements (perhaps affected by something other than the chips) have an extreme odour and loose texture, but there has been none of the loss of control of stool between bathroom breaks, anal leak, that is alluded to in the olestra haikus.

by day seven of daily chip consumption, there are serious intestinal problems developing:

We polished off a bag of Lay's "Max" chips for lunch and dinner, feeling chic and comopolitan. A little constipation was a small price to pay for fat-free enjoyment of a delicious grease substitute!

Until that evening, when tragedy struck.

I went into the bathroom to attempt a transaction. Dropped my pants (still clean, but for the yellowing stains brought on by a week's worth of residue). I sat down with a good book (ironically, Tom Robbins' Jitterbug Perfume), and successfully issued forth a perfect grogan.

But something was wrong. Everything seemed wetter, not like diahrrea, but somehow -- how can I put this delicately -- juicier. I couldn't explain what it was, until I got up to look.

I was experiencing the horror of "anal leakage." In addition to my regular waste matter, there were thick brown drops of grease floating on the water. It looked like someone had spilled 10W-40 into the toilet. What was even more disturbing was the greasy yellowish film that was collecting on the water's surface, like high-grade canola oil.

I had to wipe 15,000 times to clean up this mess. When I was finished, I called in Jade to take a look. She was so terrified by my bunghole emissions that she refused to eat any more chips.

- John Hargrave, "olé olestra!", day 7

the shock of alienated bowel movement dissuades his wife, and clearly disturbs john, but he continues with the experiment to explore more casual leakage. he finds little of this occuring after more chip consumption, but his foul experiences on the toilet lead him to this conclusion:

In conclusion, if you eat a fat that cannot be digested, it has to go somewhere, doesn't it? If you don't mind the occasional runny fart, the pools of melted butter on your toilet water, and the 1-in-50 chance of side effects such as severe abdominal cramping, then artificially-synthesized snacking pleasure can be yours.
- John Hargrave, "olé olestra!", day 8

somewhere between product placement and the most damning consumer testimonial, Hargrove seizes the language of advertisement to reveal the humour in a fat alternative that causes intestinal haywire.

three of three of the first people, friends, i polled on olestra, who had heard of it, had heard about the intestinal haywire, one from Time magazine. future chip consumers will be aware because of this provision from the fda,

"Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools in some individuals, and inhibits the body's absorption of certain fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients," said Commissioner of Food and Drugs David A. Kessler, M.D. "FDA is requiring Procter & Gamble and other manufacturers who use olestra to label all foods made with it, and, to protect the public health, to add essential vitamins -- Vitamins A, D, E and K -- to olestra."
- "FDA Approves Fat Substitute, Olestra"

the FDA stands in the middle ground between Proctor & Gamble and agitated consumers. here they fulfill their role as consumer protector by legislating for more information after numerous tests revealed remaining side effects.

for some these warnings are not enough - they decry olestra as a genuine threat, and the science backing it up as deliberately misleading. the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been the leading provider of scientifically-couched anti-olestra propoganda. since they stand against an FDA approved product, they must provide competing claims of technological fallibility - that tests results were inaccurate, and the outcomes skewed to bring to market a product perhaps flawed from the start:

Mark Brown, CSPI's director of toxicology, said, "From a public health perspective, it is crazy to allow into the food supply an additive that will almost certainly cause an enormous amount of pain and discomfort."
- "P&G, Frito-Lay, Set to Unleash Diarrhea-causing Olestra on Americans," CPSI, February 1998

CPSI provides a competing scientific perspective with their use of a "director of toxicology" articulating a public health perspective, as well as other texts where they dispute the findings of P&G scientists. CPSI is not ostensibly couching their arguements in consumer superstition ("it's too good to be true") or a kind of essential naturalism, judging the product as out of synch with their conception of proper foodstuffs. but it is possible that their arguements, while scientific, originate from that sensibility that is fundamentally opposed to technology, much as the arguments made by P&G in favour of olestra trumpet it as an important scientific advancement.

in the olestra debate the discourse of technology is turned against itself - who is the lay reader to believe? an embattled corporation selling the product that has an answer for everything, or an extremely suspicious group that is hurling arcane accusations?

when the terminology is so specific, concerning biology, statistics, and the science of testing, there is no refuge in technological discourse. both sides claim scientists to defend their perspective, and each sees their position or product as inextricably human.

into this debate two other opposing forces step in - the base poems and haikus of the cynical product critics and the high paid spin doctors behind a new product. both of the scientifically aligned groups borrow language and sentiments from these more popular voices, important since the final verdict of olestra is most likely to be formed in the court of public opinion.

like most things it becomes a question of degrees and personal priorities. consumer preference will decide the fate of olestra; how people consume olean chips considering the effect they have on their bowels. with warnings provided olestra becomes like cigarettes: a calculated risk caught up in the realm of science and corporate medical theory.

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technology affects food relationships and death determining potential directions for our society.
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olestra
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