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Olestra makes a comeback--This time in paints and lubricants, not potato chips

Remember olestra, the zero fat/zero cal fat substitute initially ballyhooed as the way to slim ever-expanding waists that met with a rapid demise when consumers began complaining of an unfortunate side effect called (forgive the graphic imagery) anal leakage?

Olestra may no longer be in your potato chips and crackers, but you may see something close to it on the shelves of your local hardware store. Procter & Gamble, the company that makes olestra (brand name Olean), is now using olestra-like chemicals to make eco-friendly paints and lubricants. The new product line is called Sefose (you didn't think they would call it olestra, did you?), and provides a "cost-competitive sustainable alternative to petrochemicals in various applications," according to the P & G Web site.

P&G scientists did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the resurrection of olestra, but Dean Webster, a chemist at North Dakota State University in Fargo, says that olestra-like chemicals could potentially be co-opted to make environmentally friendly paints. Oil-based paints commonly used to paint the exteriors of buildings often contain organic solvents—petroleum-based chemicals that can react in the atmosphere and create smog, Webster says. (Solvents are added to paints to make them less like molasses and more like water so they can be easily brushed onto surfaces). Making paints with olestra-like chemicals, or "sucrose esters," might make them more fluid to begin with, Webster says, potentially eliminating the need for adding the air-polluting solvents.

It's not clear what P&G means when it says it intends to use Sefose as a lubricant, but Webster speculates the oily chemicals will be used to reduce friction between machine parts.

But opponents of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 1996 approval of olestra for use in food says they have no problem with its use in other products.  "They built a whole factory to produce this stuff, so I guess it's a good idea," Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells ScientificAmerican.com. "As long as you're not lubricating your gastrointestinal tract, it's fine." 

Webster says this family of chemicals is generally safe; when working with them in the lab, he does not take any extraordinary precautions to prevent them from touching the skin (just the standard safety glasses, lab coats, and gloves used when working with any chemical, no matter how innocuous). But the thousands of people sickened by olestra over the years may beg to differ. The FDA received over 20,000 consumer complaints about olestra (most occurring in the first five years after its approval), more than about all other food additives combined in the history of the agency, according to Jacobson. The complaints included diarrhea, incontinence, and the leaking of a yellow-orange oil into toilet bowls and underwear.

But not everyone seems to experience the unsavory side effects. Its use dropped dramatically in the 1990s but it is still being used in certain products, including Pringles Light Fat Free Potato Crisps and Tostitos Light Restaurant Style Tortilla Chips, according to P&G's Olean Web site.

Image © iStockphoto/webphotographeer

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