The Selling Of Olestra

November 09, 1998

In a 30-year, $500 million effort to bring its fat substitute, olestra, to market, the Procter & Gamble Company (P&G) enlisted support from Congress, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and food, nutrition, and health professionals. P&G is expected to recoup its costs by the end of 1999. A case study in the November/December issue of Public Health Reports implies that public and academic alliances with industry will continue to favor corporate interests over public health until decision makers are more vigilant in keeping public health goals at the forefront of health policies.

Marion Nestle, Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University and member of the Science Board of the FDA, reviews the history of olestra's approval. FDA's decision to approve olestra as a safe food additive while requiring foods containing it to carry a warning about olestra's potential hazards is used as a model to examine the relationships between corporations and government and health professionals. She describes how the conflicts of interest inherent in these relationships are clouded further when financial relationships between corporation and consultants or health associations are not disclosed.

Nestle calls for several changes in the growing trend by the current food, nutrition and health policy regulatory system to move toward alliances with industries. In the olestra case, the FDA accepted the company's research, and switched the burden of proof to critics to prove demonstrable harm. She suggests, instead, that Congress revise statutes to increase the FDA's research authority and funding, and that FDA be granted greater authority, not less, to regulate health and nutrition claims on package labels.

Funding for nutrition education cannot compete with the $30 billion spent annually for advertising by food companies. But to counter the effects of such massive industry spending, the author calls for using creative policy approaches to promote healthful dietary changes by increasing agricultural supports, food regulations, food assistance programs, nutrition services and training, and food and nutrition monitoring and research.
Contact Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH; tel. 212-998-5595; fax 212-995-4194; email ">

Public Health Reports

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