It looks like a potato chip, it tastes like a potato chip, it crunches like a potato chip, it leaves grease on your fingers just like a potato chip.
But underneath this snack's commonplace exterior is a potential marketplace bombshell. For this little chip is fried in olestra, a fat substitute that offers no fat and half the calories of regular chips.
"It tastes just as you would expect a potato chip to taste," said Jane Schultz, vice president of communications for the Snack Food Association in Alexandria, Va.
Some in the food and nutrition industries caution that olestra is not a substitute for eating a healthy diet, and some people have concerns about possible ill effects from eating it.
And some critics, like Marion Nestle, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University and a former member of the FDA's advisory panel on new foods, say it's "totally useless.
"If this were a really useful product, it might be worth the risk," she said. "But it's not. The sole point of this product is to make money for Procter & Gamble, and to delude people into thinking they can eat junk and not gain weight."
But now that it's been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for use in savory (salty) snacks, it's bound to cause a flurry among fat-conscious manufacturers and consumers.
"There's been a lot of fat substitutes released over the years, but this is the first one that's applicable to fried foods," Ms. Schultz said. "And that's very exciting."
Procter & Gamble so far has bet $200 million that people who like salty snacks are going to sweep olestra-containing treats off grocery shelves.
"The fact is, Americans eat a lot of snacks," said Wendy Jacques, associate director of Public Affairs for P&G.; The snack-food industry puts the figure at 5.7 billion pounds of savory snacks a year, or almost 22 pounds per man, woman, and child in the country, Ms. Jacques said. In the past, there haven't been a lot of choices in the savory category, she said, with low-fat or fat-free products accounting for only about 5 percent of the total.
Even critics such as Ms. Nestle admit they can't tell the difference between foods cooked with olestra and those cooked with regular fat. She has tried the olestrapotato chips and said, "They taste like everything else cooked in oil." Some people, notably a panel of amateur taste-testers at Time magazine, who sampled the chips for an article earlier this month, say olestra-cooked foods have an aftertaste, but "not of chemicals and not really unpleasant." Ms. Nestle said she detected no aftertaste.
Dr. Chris Hassall, associate director of regulatory and clinical development for P&G;, said that, by itself, olestra doesn't taste like much. "It has a little less taste than vegetable oil," he said, making it similar to canola oil or solid shortening. "That's one of the reasons why it's good for cooking," he said -- it doesn't overpower other flavors.
The fact that foods can be cooked in olestra is an important point for snack manufacturers. Unlike other fat substitutes, olestra -- it will be called Olean on product labels -- doesn't break down when it's heated. That's why it can be used to fry things like potato chips. Typically, manufacturers reduce the fat in such snacks by baking them, rather than frying, with what Mr. Jacques called "a significant trade-off in taste."
It will be some months yet before any ordinary consumers can sample olestra foods for themselves. For one thing, "we have to construct a facility to manufacture olestra," Ms. Jacques said. P&G; has only a small facility now turning out olestra, and plans to use some of that production capacity to sell olestra to other snack-food manufacturers, who will turn out no-fat savories of their own. Potential olestra products might be tortilla chips, crackers, cheese curls and potato chips.
"Over the next several months, we would expect some test markets to begin," she said, though it's too soon to tell what the products tested might be or what markets might be selected. "It's going to be a long time before products are available nationally. We're not talking about a matter of months."
Time will tell whether, when the products come out, consumers will have forgotten some of the controversy that attended olestra's approval Wednesday.
Olestra is made by attaching several fatty acids to a molecule of sugar. Although the resulting substance is made mostly of fat, the molecule is much larger than a regular fat molecule, and it's not recognized by the body as fat. It simply passes straight through the digestive system.
As it goes, however, it acts like a fat and sweeps up fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K, and carotenoids, such as beta carotene. Critics say that could lead to vitamin deficiencies or possible long-term effects on health such as increased incidence of cancer.
Dr. Benjamin Caballero, director for the center for Human Nutrition at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, who was one of three members of the advisory panel that suggested the FDA approve olestra for limited use, said the concerns about olestra "capturing" vitamins and carotenoids led a recommendation that P&G; add A, D, E and K to olestra.
The panel didn't recommend adding carotenoids, because, Dr. Caballero said, "there's not enough information on carotenoids to make a decision on adding it, or if it's added, how much." Of the 100 or so carotenoids known, only one, beta carotene, has received much interest, and studies of its impact on long-term health have been contradictory.
The other health concern, however, is that, in some people, eating olestra can cause abdominal cramps, bloating, diarrhea, and gas.
Dr. Caballero said a person would have to "work at it" to eat enough olestra to cause discomfort. Olestra has to be present in the intestine to cause side effects, he said, and since it's not absorbed, olestra passes through the system pretty quickly. "The idea is to use the product in snacks that are eaten away from [other] food," he said. "Usually you don't eat snacks and lunch or dinner."
Because of the concerns, how ever, FDA has ordered follow-up studies on olestra, and products containing it will carry warning labels about the loss of nutrients and possible intestinal upsets.
Locally, Nancy Cohen, CEO of Eddie's markets in Roland Park and on Charles Street, said olestra "may be another Nutrasweet," popular with consumers despite some early health concerns. "People have been clamoring for something like this."
Within hours of the FDA's action Wednesday, Frito-Lay said it will begin testing a line of fat-free salty snacks produced with olestra. But not all manufacturers are leaping on the olestra bandwagon.
"The bottom line is always going to be taste," said Caroline Fee, manager of corporate communications for P&G; rival Nabisco. Olestra is too new to judge its likely impact in the market, she said, pointing out that Nabisco uses no fat replacers in its extremely popular line of Snackwells sweet and savory snacks. "When it comes to pleasing consumers, you have to take your time."