For anyone who's ever wanted a free lunch, the day may not be far off. In as little as a year, the have-it-all set could sit down to a meal of burger and fries cooked in fat-free oil and salad tossed in fat-free dressing, topped off with a dish of fat-free ice cream - all without sacrificing any of the taste and texture of fat.
The NutraSweet Company's recent unveiling of its low-calorie fat substitute, Simplesse, comes less than a year after the Procter & Gamble Company sought approval from the Food and Drug Administration for olestra, a calorie-free, cholesterol-free oil. Other food manufacturers, including Unilever, Frito-Lay, and CPC International, are developing fat substitutes of their own.
NutraSweet's Simplesse is made of protein particles so small that the tongue perceives them as fluid. The tiny, round shape of the particles allows them to roll easily over one another, creating the smoothness and creaminess associated with fat. The product can't be cooked, so its most likely use is in low-calorie alternatives to dairy foods like ice cream, butter, cream cheese, and mayonnaise.
Since Simplesse is made from ordinary milk or egg protein, NutraSweet planned to head for the market without FDA approval. But shortly after its introduction, FDA officials demanded that the product be submitted for review, which could take a year or more.
Procter & Gamble's olestra, which has been under FDA review since last spring, is a different substance. A synthetic chemical that passes through the body undigested, it can be used in cooking and frying without adding a single calorie.
Whichever fat substitute is approved first, both are sure to find a ready market among consumers who want their cake without the calories. Bob Messenger, publisher of Food Trends Newsletter, says the demand for palate-pleasing fake fats could be ``explosive.'' He compares their potential to that of aspartame, NutraSweet's no-calorie sweetener, whose instant popularity took even its manufacturer by surprise and now brings in annual sales totaling more than $700 million. ``They're a new generation of ingredients that will revolutionize the [food] industry,'' he says.
Leslie Ravitz, a director of Salomon Brothers Inc., doubts that the fake fats will have the same market impact as aspartame. He estimates that Simplesse will have ``something around $200-$300 million ultimate potential. But that's a big, big product. The only larger food additive would be NutraSweet.''
``We're all set to capitalize on [Simplesse] as soon as it's possible to use it,'' says James McCrory, a vice-president of Borden Inc. ``You know there's a market. Low-fat, low-calorie has been our fastest-growing product category. For example, when we came out with calcium-fortified milk, the one that went the best was the low-fat version.''
The prospect of fat substitutes doesn't inspire wholehearted enthusiasm among nutritionists, however. Many are concerned that the trend toward synthetic foods will encourage a nation of noshers to consume even more empty calories than we do now.
``We are not going to get away from the idea of a quick fix, are we?'' asks Joyce Nettleton, a Harvard-trained nutritionist and author of ``Seafood and Health'' (Osprey Books, 1987). ``Put in the phony fat, and we can eat all the potato chips, all the greasies, all the ice creams we want, and we can get away with it.... There's a place for those things in limited amounts or on infrequent occasions. The problem is that so many of our food choices fall into that category.''
Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says his Washington, D.C., watchdog group has evaluated Procter & Gamble's research and urged the FDA not to approve olestra. The group claims that P&G didn't do enough studies, and that the lab tests of olestra on rats showed harmful side effects. The group has not yet investigated Simplesse.
Mr. Jacobson acknowledges that fat substitutes, if they are safe, ``offer interesting possibilities.'' But he is concerned about the trend toward synthetic foods. ``What's going to happen in 10 years or so? ... We'll have artificial sweeteners, artificial fats, artificial flour, artificial colorings, artificial flavoring - what in the world is happening to our food supply? The artificial sweeteners have led to a tremendous increase in the consumption of basically worthless products, either regular sodas or diet sodas. And I think they have contributed to declines in the sales of milk or the drinking of water. So we ought to be taking a look before all these new chemicals come in and we have a new wave of dietary changes.''
Robert Shapiro, chief executive officer of the NutraSweet Company, counters, ``Clearly, if somebody lived entirely on a diet of junk foods, that wouldn't be a good thing. But taking what are currently problematic foods, foods that have a lot of sugar or a lot of fat, and giving people alternatives that satisfy their desires for those, that taste terrific, and that are better for you than those foods are, I don't understand how anybody can say that's a bad thing.''