Review and Analysis of the Effects of Olestra, a Dietary Fat Substitute, on Gastrointestinal Function and Symptoms
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Olestra, a dietary fat substitute, was recently made available to consumers in savory snacks in three cities. Early reports of gastrointestinal complaints attributed to olestra attracted media coverage and fostered confusion among physicians and consumers about the nature of olestra and its effects on the digestive system. We reviewed all published studies of olestra's gastrointestinal effects and all relevant unpublished studies submitted to the Food and Drug Administration. Each study was analyzed by a group of expert gastroenterologists and epidemiologists. The symptoms reported with olestra ingestion are similar to those reported with ingestion of fiber and sorbitol, although the mechanisms involved in changing stool characteristics differ among these food additives. Olestra's effects on stool habit and characteristics are due to its presence in the stool. Large amounts are more likely to induce gastrointestinal symptoms than small amounts. There is no evidence that olestra induces pathological change in bowel function: there is no increased fluid or electrolyte nor is there altered gastrointestinal motility or microflora. Olestra and triglyceride ingestion resulted in a similar frequency of symptoms in normal adults and children and in people with chronic inflammatory bowel disease in remission. Olestra traverses the digestive tract intact to become a stool additive. Some subjects develop a change in bowel habit and stool characteristics due to the presence of more olestra in the stool. These changes resemble those associated with ingestion of sorbitol and fiber.
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