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Environmental connections to public health >>

Green chemistry happens; Olestra finds a new use

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Special to Enviroblog by Dave Andrews, EWG Senior Scientist.

Painting the wall with potato chips

Olestra, the laxative fat substitute, could represent a class of greener replacements for hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in newer low voc paints. A recent Scientific American article made me curious how and if Olestra could represent green chemistry.

A previous Enviroblog post detailed the hazards of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), their common use in household products and their link to both short and long term adverse health effects.

Remember Olestra

Olestra, introduced to the diet-crazed public in the '90s, aimed to be the magic molecule, replacing fat in products without adding calories. Olestra had one major problem, however, it proved to be too effective in passing through the body (literally). The Olestra side effects led to more FDA complaints than any other food additive to date.

Olestra can still be found in some low fat snack foods and a counter of Olestra servings consumed continues to tick on the Olean website. Last check, it was over 5.8 billion.

What exactly is Olestra? Chemically speaking

The backbone of Olestra and its family of molecules, sucrose esters, is a simple sugar molecule. Using chemical synthesis, long chain fats are attached to this scaffold. Typically the fats are sourced from soybean, cotton, corn, or other vegetable oils. To date, most of these molecules have proven to be of low toxicity concern, but as the public has found out, they sometimes bring along discomfort and inconvenience.

Could Olestra replace VOCs?

It turns out that our stomachs' poor response to Olestra helped drive green innovation. Proctor and Gamble is now marketing a number of similar sucrose ester molecules for use as paint additives to aid in viscosity, thus allowing the elimination or reduction of VOCs. The chemicals are also being marketed as replacements for petrochemical lubricants. In both cases we approach with cautious optimism, the slippery substance Olestra.

As green chemistry and finding safer alternatives for products becomes an established practice, it is worth considering how this development occurred. From the outside, it seems that P&G needed a way to profit from these molecules and the first option fell through. In this instance, they found a green chemistry option.

What we do not want is toxic chemicals finding their way into a wide range of products, waterways. It is interesting that the multitudes of uses for a specific chemical are typically not anticipated during design. More importantly, a single chemical replacement for the many uses of an unsafe chemical is unlikely.

Update: The Procter & Gamble Company has requested that I emphasis the chemicals being used as replacements for solvents and lubricants are not Olestra but a family of similar compounds marketed as Sefose. These similar but distinct chemicals have been specifically tailored for their respective uses.

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