The XX Factor

Are You Feeding Your Kids a Lie?

Olestra, the miracle fat substitute once known for its uncomfortably comic side effects, is still available in a grocery store near you. Ruffles, Lays and Pringles Light are all made with Olean, Procter & Gamble’s brand name olestra-based fat substitute, and according to a mighty ticker on the Olean website , somebody out there is munching some right now, with some 6.5 billion served. Olestra never really took off the way P&G hoped, but for some snackers, it’s still the way to go. Less fat equals less calories equals less weight gain, right?

Not right-and not just because less fat equals less calories equals more chips eaten, although that’s always been a pretty common interpretation of the equation. Researchers at Purdue University found that rats fed Pringles Light as part of a high-fat diet ate more and gained more weight and fatty tissue than rats fed the same diet with regular Pringles (no word on whether the rats preferred Sour Cream and Onion or BBQ). Rats on a low-fat diet didn’t gain weight from either chip-until they were switched to a high fat diet. Then, the rats whose bodies had grown used to Pringles Light ate more food and gained more weight and body fat than the rats who’d stuck to the, um, “natural” Pringles. It’s not just our brains that tell us we can eat more of a food that tastes fatty, but isn’t, but our bodies, and it appears that our bodies take that new knowledge and apply it to fatty-tasting foods across the board. Fake fat equals confused body equals equals more weight gain, thanks to the fake food’s interference with our own ability to regulate our food intake.

In short, olestra messes with you. The same researchers say they’ve found a similar effect in rats fed saccharin and other artificial sweeteners, meaning that daily Diet Coke may have left you with a body that no longer knows how to interpret the cues it gets from the things you eat or drink. Yet, as Margaret Hartmann at Jezebel points out, ” we still have our choice of Equal or Splenda wherever we go .” No matter how damning the research, fake sugar and fake fat will continue to tempt us into believing that there’s a short cut to weight loss that skips that pesky healthy eating thing. I hope the researchers will follow up by studying whether the rats ever regain their initial instincts, but meanwhile, their work reminds me to double down on my determination that my kids, and in particular my daughters, never fall into the fake food trap.

Not everything we eat has to be “good for you.” The Michael Pollan mantra (Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.) gets stretched in our house to include reasonable servings of everything from Pringles to Flavor-Blasted Goldfish New! Wild White Cheddar. We all know those aren’t food, they’re scientifically engineered tasty calorie delivery vehicles, but while the Goldfish, in particular, include a few ingredients you wouldn’t find in the average kitchen (disodium guanylate: not on my list) as well as ingredients that have been processed far beyond normal recognition (that would be the dehydrated butter), at least it all is (or once was) food-related. Olestra, saccharin, and their ilk are foods altered not just beyond what our eyes would recognize, but beyond what our systems can recognize as well. Even in moderation, I don’t want my kids eating a lie.

CORRECTION: In the original version of this post, Michael Pollan’s excellent advice on eating was attributed to the equally brilliant Mark Bittman, whose name was misspelled, as was the company name Procter & Gamble.