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Group: Price of fat substitute could be cancer

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A consumer group that has been campaigning against olestra, the new fat substitute, renewed its assault Wednesday, saying long-term use of the product may cause thousands of cancer cases.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) also said the product -- sold under the brand-name Olean by Procter & Gamble -- causes far more cases of severe digestive upset than the company will admit to.

The CSPI, a nonprofit group that does regular studies on food and nutrition-related subjects, urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to either withdraw approval of olestra, or to require more prominent and strongly worded labels about its possible effects.

The product, approved in January 1996, is used in some of Frito-Lay's potato and corn chips, which are labeled as fat-free.

"The most important long-term effect of olestra, or Olean as the company calls it, is that it interferes with the body's absorption of fat-soluble nutrients," Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI, told a news conference.

The CSPI said olestra washes away important nutrients known as carotenoids, and said recent studies show they are far more important for preventing cancer than anyone had thought.

Procter & Gamble admits that olestra can carry away fat-soluble vitamins, because it passes undigested through the intestines. For this reason the FDA requires it to add four vitamins -- A, D, E and K -- to olestra.

But the CSPI said there were many more carotenoids that could be carried away by olestra. These nutrients, associated with the red, yellow and orange colors in many vegetables, include beta-carotene and the less-known lycopene and lutein.

"Even the amount of olestra in a small, one-ounce (28-gram) bag of potato chips will lower blood carotenoids by over 50 percent if consumed on a daily basis." Dr. Walter Willett, who heads the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, told the news conference.

Willett cited several studies that show people with high intakes of carotenoids -- found in vegetables ranging from spinach to carrots -- have a lower risk of lung cancer, prostate cancer and other cancers, of heart disease and stroke, and of degenerative eye diseases that lead to blindness.

Procter & Gamble disputes this.

"Since the FDA approval there have been hundreds of studies on carotenoids that have been published," Suzette Middleton, a nutrition scientist at Procter & Gamble said.

"The science is still out. There are still scientists that disagree about the role of carotenoids in health."

She added: "The science has not changed. There is no study that has shown conclusively that carotenoids have any effect on health ... People are taking the results that they want to take to support their hypothesis."

She said Procter & Gamble had studied lycopene, lutein and the other carotenoids, and while Olean did carry them out of the body "the effect is within the normal variation in dietary intake day to day".

Willett said if Olean sells as well as Procter & Gamble hopes it will, it will reduce consumption of carotenoids in the United States by 10 percent.

"With these assumptions, we have estimated that every year in the United States we would experience between 2,000 and 9,800 excess cases of prostate cancer, 32,000 excess cases of coronary heart disease, 1,400 to 7,400 excess cases of lung cancer, and 80 to 390 excess cases of blindness," he said.

And the chips are selling well in a nation obsessed with fat. USA Today quotes market research firm Information Resources saying sales of Frito-Lay's Wow chips were more than $58 million in the first eight weeks of national distribution.

The FDA will review olestra again next week.

If the FDA will not ban olestra, it should at least stop Procter & Gamble and Frito-Lay from labeling snack products made with it as "fat-free," and should require a prominent warning label, the CSPI said. A similar petition is being made to the Federal Trade Commission.

Procter & Gamble says tens of millions of people have eaten Olean since it was approved. It says its tests have shown that people who eat chips made with Olean have no more digestive upsets than people who eat chips made with regular fat.