Hopkins Bayview Researcher Chips Away At Olestra Controversy

January 14, 1998

According to research by a Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center physician, potato chips made with olestra don't cause any more digestive problems than regular-fat potato chips and, despite containing only half the calories, are just as filling. Olestra, a nonabsorbable fat substitute, has been making news headlines since its approval by the FDA two years ago for use in snack products. It has been criticized for causing abdominal cramping and loose stools based on two clinical studies in which subjects were required to consume olestra at every meal for 56 consecutive days.

According to a January 14 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article, the Hopkins Bayview researcher's study challenges past findings by looking at olestra under more normal circumstances. "This was the first study of its kind on the fat substitute. Instead of looking at mass consumption of olestra, we looked at what happens to people when they consume it under conditions typical for the use of snack foods," says lead researcher Lawrence Cheskin, M.D., a gastroenterologist and director of both the division of digestive diseases and the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center at Hopkins Bayview.

In this unprecedented double-blind study, 1,100 people were selected to participate in a potato chip taste test while watching a movie of their choice at a Chicago, Illinois, multiplex cinema. Half of the people were given chips made with olestra the other half were given regular-fat potato chips. While the setting was unique for a clinical trial, the study was structured to meet rigorous controlled clinical trial standards. Within four days of the study, participants were interviewed by an independent marketing firm. Nearly 16 percent who ate the olestra chips reported experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms. However, nearly 18 percent said they had gastrointestinal symptoms after eating the regular-fat chips.

In addition, there was no indication of increasing symptoms with higher consumption in either test group. These similar results confirm other, relatively recent findings that digestive symptoms are quite common in the general population, with more than two-thirds of adults reporting them during a three-month period.

Findings also indicate that overall preference for olestra potato chips was slightly less than with regular-fat chips (22 percent lower olestra chip consumption). Despite consuming less (2.1 ounces on average), the olestra group reported feeling just as full as the group who had eaten the regular-fat chips (2.7 ounces on average). Dr. Cheskin notes that this may be important for people who want to control their weight. Fat substitutes may be a valuable tool for people who need to reduce their fat and calorie intake for health reasons."

Funding for this study was provided by Procter and Gamble Corporation. Dr. Cheskin is a consultant to Procter and Gamble. The terms of this arrangement are being managed by the Johns Hopkins University in accordance with its conflict of interest policies.
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Johns Hopkins Medicine

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