December 22, 2004

The laboratory in Building 96 was humming with the optimism of an alchemist turning base metal into gold. It was the 1960’s, and food scientists at Procter & Gamble’s research center in Cincinnati were developing a product they hoped would be in every kitchen pantry and countless commercially made foods in America: an ingredient that would taste, feel, and cook like fat without actually being fattening.

P&G chemists had stumbled upon the project while developing a baby formula for premature babies. They had designed a simulated fat to provide the babies extra calories, which would translate into extra weight. Apparently, however, the babies were not digesting the fat ingredient and therefore not gaining the necessary weight. The findings were intriguing, and P&G executives began thinking…

The babies’ failure to digest the simulated fat, it turned out, rested on the inability of the enzymes of the pancreas, the enzymes that digest fats, to break down the artificial fat that P&G chemists had designed. Enzymes are able to interact with, and induce change in, molecules they come in contact with because they are programmed to “read” specific molecules (this is how glucose isomerase interacts with the glucose in corn syrup). In the case of the pancreatic enzyme, called lipase, the enzyme is able to break down a fat, or lipid, molecule. It is able to do that because it can decipher, so to speak, that molecule, and interacts with it in such a way that the fat is broken down. A normal fat molecule looks like an E, composed of a backbone and three horizontal strips. The lipase enzyme breaks these strips, or fatty acids, from the vertical spine that holds them together. Once the lipase breaks down the components of the fat the digestive tract absorbs the broken-down components. These components contain calories; if we absorb them and we don’t exercise, we get fat.

The new fat did not look, exactly, like an E, and therefore the lipase enzyme was not able to break it down. The new fat resembled the fat structure enough to have some of the physical properties of fat, to taste, feel, and cook like a fat. But there was a difference. The P&G chemists, in creating the new fat, had separated the fatty acids, or horizontal strips, from the vertical spine of the fat molecule that bound them. After a series of chemical steps these “free” fatty acids were then reacted with sugar molecules. The sugars the P&G chemists chose contained from four to eight sites for bonding with the fatty acids. The new spine, instead of bonding with only three fatty acids, like an E, could bond with four to eight fatty acids. The digestive enzymes, when confronted with these molecular Frankensteins, were baffled. Since the lipase was unable to break down the caloric-laden fat, the digestive tract did not absorb the fat at all.

The novelty of the invention was obvious and in 1971 P&G was awarded its first patent. “In accordance with the present invention,” the patent stated “it has been discovered that certain fatty acid ester compounds having at least 4 fatty acid ester groups [“ester” refers to the chemical bond between the fatty acid and the sugar molecule] have the physical properties of ordinary fat but are not digested or absorbed to the same extent when eaten…These compounds can therefore be used as a partial or total replacement for ordinary fat in fat containing food compositions to reduce the caloric value thereof.” The chemical term for the new molecule was sucrose (or sugar) ester, the generic label for the new ingredient was olestra (presumably because of the ester bond that bound the fatty acids to the sugar) and the brand name was Olean.

The brilliance of the invention did not end with the strategy of defying the digestive enzymes. The new fat molecule itself could be modified or expanded, depending on the needs of the targeted application. The length of fatty acids, for example, could be varied by selecting different fats or oils as raw materials for the fatty acids; and those fatty acids could in turn be hydrogenated or isomerized (rearranged) with the sophisticated knowledge and engineering P&G was famous for. The development of olestra for various sectors of the food industry revolved then, as it does now, around tailoring the melting point, feel, and taste characteristics of olestra to the different foods it would be incorporated into. Olestra for crackers is slightly different from olestra for corn chips, which is slightly different for potato chips, and so on.

Olestra worked well, but not perfectly. Tests revealed that the indigestibility of the fat-like molecule was causing what early P&G documents described as “leakage” problems in the stool of a percentage of the people who ate these fat-free foods. P&G put considerable effort into identifying adequate “anti-leakage agents” such as hydrogenated oils that would help stiffen the fat-like ingredient. Some people complained, additionally, of abdominal upset. The FDA was troubled by these difficulties and by the capacity of olestra to absorb vitamins in foods, vitamins that would otherwise be absorbed by the body. Olestra pre-empted the body’s absorption of these fats. The FDA itself had to work out new research and testing guidelines for the approval of olestra, and that process also took time; until olestra was presented as a candidate for approval no macroingredient, as the regulatory literature put it, had been presented to the FDA for review.
These problems delayed olestra’s approval until 1996, and even then its approval was burdened by qualifications. It could only be sold to the sector of the food industry called savory snacks, the area where sufficient research had been conducted. Those snacks had to carry a label that warned of possible gastrointestinal problems. And those snacks had to be fortified with extra vitamins.

Licensed with approval and, despite the FDA’s restrictions, hopeful about olestra’s prospects, P&G shifted the olestra work out of Building 96 and poured $400 million into constructing a new olestra plant (its street number is 4700 Ester Avenue) that would be capable of making 200 million pounds of olestra per year. It began a national marketing launch (millions of dollars more), and olestra began showing up in savory snacks like Fat-Free Pringles and Frito-Lay’s Wow Chips, now called Lay’s Light Potato Chips.

It was during this campaign that the OU had a humble but significant role to play in the development of olestra. Rabbi Zywica, the RC for the food division of P&G, recalls that executives from P&G asked if they could use an animal based (non-kosher) fat as the fatty acid source for the olestra and still earn OU certification. They reasoned that since the fat had been chemically changed it was no longer animal fat. (Readers will recall, amusingly enough, that their argument echoes the claims of P&G lawyers who, decades earlier, persuaded the FDA Commissioner that hydrogenated peanut oil, a modified oil, should not be privileged as an additive to peanut butter over hydrogenated vegetable oil, because the form and function of hydrogenated vegetable oil, a modified oil, was essentially the same as that of hydrogenated peanut oil). The executives were so insistent, Rabbi Zywica said, that they would not accept an answer either from him nor even Rabbi Genack. Rabbi Zywica arranged a meeting in which the executives flew in from Cincinnati to hear in person from none other than the peh kadosh of Rav Belsky, shlita, that the OU will never certify such a product. The P&G officials, of course, complied.

Despite P&G’s marketing campaign olestra continued to face public controversy. After initial excitement, sales dove. In 2002 P&G sold the olestra-making factory to Twin Rivers Technologies, also an OU company, although P & G still owns the brand name Olean and rights to its production. The annual production of the plant is at about one quarter of its capacity, or 50 million pounds, and some years has been at 12 million pounds. Olestra is still in Pringles and in Lay’s Light Chips and now also in Utz Yes Fat-Free Potato Chips. Last year the FDA, persuaded by P&G’s further research into olestra’s health effects, removed its requirement that foods containing olestra bear the discouraging label, and its makers are somewhat upbeat about its future. Certainly now, with obesity a well-acknowledged health concern, reduced fat and fat-free foods is perhaps the most pressing goal of food formulations. But the effort to make a fat-free food without any downside – either in health or in geshmak — remains, despite the diligence and creativity of some of the finest food chemists, elusive.