Fat Substitutes

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Fat Substitutes: A Taste of the Future.?

by Marian Segal
"Ice cream is the nectar of the gods. This is a fat-free nectar." According to USA Today, that's what its reporter Pat Guy had to say about the new frozen dessert Simple Pleasures.

Mark Memmott of the same paper was less enthusiastic. "The chocolate leaves a rather unpleasant aftertaste," he said. "I wouldn't serve it to my dog. I'd give it to the cat. I don't like the cat." Editor Ray Goldbacher's verdict was more middle-of-the-road: "I don't think anyone will mistake this for super-premium ice cream, but it's not bad."

Pronouncements on the taste of this new dessert varied similarly among others present at the press conference held in February 1990 to introduce the product to the public.

What's all the fuss about? It's about ice cream without fat. Ice cream without guilt. (Well, maybe some guilt even though it's fat-free, it's not calorie-free.)

Simple Pleasures is a frozen dessert made with Simplesse, the first fat substitute approved by the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, legally, Simple Pleasures cannot be called ice cream because FDA's standards of identity require that ice cream contain at least 10 percent butterfat. Both Simple Pleasures and Simplesse are products of NutraSweet Co., a subsidiary of Monsanto Co. of St. Louis, Mo. (NutraSweet also makes aspartame, the sugar substitute widely used in low-calorie beverages and other products.)

Simplesse is promoted as a competitor for premium ice creams. In petitioning FDA for approval of Simplesse, NutraSweet compared the fat, cholesterol and caloric content of a super-premium vanilla ice cream containing 16 percent butterfat with a frozen dessert using Simplesse. A 4-ounce serving of the ice cream provided 19 grams of fat, 97 milligrams of cholesterol, and 274 calories, whereas the same size serving of Simple Pleasures contained less than 1 gram of fat, 14 milligrams of cholesterol, and 120 calories. Regular ice cream, with approximately 10 percent fat, contains about 7 grams of fat, 30 milligrams of cholesterol, and 135 calories per 4-ounce serving. (Simple Pleasures is not yet available in vanilla because, the company says, it hasn't yet been able to get the taste just right. It now offers toffee crunch, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, peach, and rum raisin.)

Generally Recognized as Safe

Simplesse is made from egg white and milk protein blended and heated in a process called microparticulation, in which the protein is shaped into microscopic round particles that roll easily over one another. The aim of the process is to create the feel of a creamy liquid with the texture of fat.

It works. Because its components have long been used as foods, FDA, on Feb. 23,1990, affirmed Simplesse as "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) for use as a thickener or texturizer in frozen dessert products. Safety studies were not required.

NutraSweet plans to seek FDA approval for use of Simplesse in additional products, such as mayonnaise, salad dressing, yogurt, dips, sour cream, butter, margarine, and cheese spreads. Simplesse cannot be used in cooking because baking or frying causes it to lose its creaminess. NutraSweet says, however, that "products made with Simplesse can be enjoyed with many hot foods." For example, it can be used in an imitation butter spread on toast or in a sour cream-type sauce used to top a baked potato.

NutraSweet estimates that full use of Simplesse has the potential to decrease total dietary fat consumption by Americans by 14 percent and dietary cholesterol intake by 5 percent.

Others Being Developed

Other fat substitutes are under development or awaiting FDA approval. Kraft General Foods has petitioned the agency for GRAS approval of Trailblazer, which, like Simplesse, is made from egg and milk protein processed to mimic the "mouth feel" of fat.

Procter and Gamble's fat substitute Olestra, however, is a different matter. Developed for use in hot foods as well as cold, it is a new substance that, according to the company, is "almost a carbon copy of regular fat, but with a molecule of sugar at its core instead of glycerine, and up to eight fatty acids attached to the core instead of the customary three."

Because it is a new molecular structure that does not break down to its component parts during digestion, Olestra must be approved as a new food additive rather than as a GRAS substance, which means that studies must be done to ensure its safety.

Procter and Gamble says its product looks, tastes, feels, and behaves like fat. It cooks without breaking down under heat, yet it cannot be digested and absorbed, so it passes through the body "contributing no calories, no cholesterol, and no fat." The company is asking for approval of Olestra for deep-frying savory snacks such as chips and puffs made from potatoes and corn.

Help for the Health-Conscious

Health- and weight-conscious consumers are expected to welcome fat-free products that taste like the real thing. In fact, a recent survey by the Calorie Control Council, an association of low-calorie and diet food manufacturers, found that 57 percent of adult Americans believe there is a need for fat substitutes.

According to the 1988 Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health, high intake of fat is associated with increased risk for obesity, some types of cancer (breast, colon, prostate, rectum, ovaries, and endometrium), and possibly gallbladder disease. Studies also show strong evidence of a relationship between high saturated fat intake and a high blood cholesterol level, which is a risk factor for coronary heart disease.

The report also states that because obesity is a risk factor for several chronic diseases, it is important to maintain a desirable weight. Obesity increases the risk of high blood pressure and, consequently, stroke. It also increases blood cholesterol and may, by itself, be a risk factor for coronary heart disease.

Because fat contributes nine calories per gram, fat substitution would significantly reduce the calorie content of a food. Excess calories from fat are readily stored and cause weight gain.

A 1985 national survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that fat contributed 34 percent of total calorie intake for children ages 1 to 5, 36 percent for men ages 19 to 50, and 37 percent for women ages 19 to 50. The National Cholesterol Education Program of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, along with other health groups, recommends that all healthy Americans 2 and older limit their total daily fat intake to no more than 30 percent of total calories and that less than 10 percent of the total calories should be from saturated fat. Cholesterol should be kept to less than 300 milligrams per day, and the total calorie intake should be what is needed to reach or maintain a desirable weight. (People with certain illnesses or conditions may have different requirements.)

Health Outcome Unknown

It remains to be seen, however, whether consumers will, indeed, become healthier by using products with fat substitutes. According to the June 15,1990, issue of The Medical Letter, a professional publication on drugs and therapeutics, no clinical studies have shown that use of either Simplesse or Trailblazer leads to weight reduction or decreases blood lipid (fat) concentrations.
Moreover, some nutritionists are concerned that people who eat products made with fat substitutes will feel freer to eat more of other high-fat foods, rationalizing that they are "saving" on those made with substitutes. Another possibility experts anticipate is that people will eat more fat-free double-dip ice cream cones, leaving less room for the more nutritious foods they need.

A more basic, as yet unanswered, question is whether nonfat foods will satisfy as well as the traditional foods they replace and, therefore, whether they will really help people reduce fat consumption.

Lisa Lefferts, staff scientist with the Washington-based consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, points to the experience with sugar substitutes: "We're eating four times the amount of sugar substitutes as we were in 1975, but sugar consumption has gone up as well, so clearly sugar substitutes are not substituting for sugar." Lefferts says that the effect of fat substitutes on the diet is unclear. "Fat substitutes such as Simplesse are a step in the right direction," she says, "but we would encourage that their use be monitored in order to assess their true impact."

FDA, too, has questions about the impact of fat substitutes in the food supply. "There are two categories of fat substitutes to consider," says Walter Glinsmann, M.D., associate director for clinical nutrition. "Products like Simplesse are processed from substances already in the diet, and they are digested and used by the body in the same way as the original substances. Others, like Olestra, are new, undigestible molecules never before in the food supply."

The possible health effects of consuming large amounts of a novel substance must be carefully researched and reviewed before such a product can be marketed. "When you consider that fat intake is about 35 to 40 percent of the daily caloric intake and that half of that fat is derived from foods in which the fat can be replaced with a substitute, you need to take a hard look at the potential health effects," Glinsmann cautions.

Some of the questions to be considered are:

  • If the materials are absorbed in the body even in very small amounts are they toxic?

  • If they are not absorbed, how do they affect gastrointestinal functions? For example, could they interfere with the absorption of nutrients or drugs?

  • Are the substitutes suitable for general use or only for subpopulations of the general public?

The financial impact of fat substitutes may be easier to predict than the health and dietary effects. In February 1990, The Wall Street Journal reported that some estimates have Simplesse becoming a $500-million-a-year or bigger business by the mid-199Os. It is not surprising that still more firms, in addition to Kraft and Procter and Gamble, are entering the race for these consumer dollars.

Marian Segal is a member of FDA's public affairs staff.

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