Marathon race for an artificial fat of the land

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THIS is a story about fat in all its hideous and insidious forms: fat-laden bodies, fatty foods, fat substitutes, fat-impeding and fat-promoting industries.

At the height of beach season, particularly in health- obsessed America, it seems an appropriate topic. It is especially pertinent in light of last week's horrifying announcement that Americans are becoming obese in record numbers. They have developed what scientists refer to as the 3,700 calorie-a-day problem: too much food, often not the right kind, coupled with TV-induced 'couch potato' syndrome - or not enough exercise.

All of the above adds up to big money - billions of dollars. An ironic footnote to last week's obesity announcement was the finding by the Washington-based Centre for Science in the Public Interest that Taco Bells, Chili Parlors and other popular Mexican fast-food restaurants can be bad for one's health. In nutritionally terms, eating a platter of chile rellenos is like eating a whole stick of pure butter.

Adding to the confusion is the improved awareness of Americans of the need to count calories and exercise to stay healthy - even as they cling to their Taco Bells, McDonald's hamburgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken. This produces a sort of national dilemma over diet - now a dollars 50bn a year industry.

The latest entrant in the 'guilt-free' category is the Nabisco Foods Group, which last week unveiled a new fake fat called Salatrim. This was introduced with the pomp and fanfare that might accompany a breakthrough in the cure for Aids. Company officials insisted that if they can overcome regulatory hurdles, they will have succeeded where other giants, such as Procter & Gamble and Monsanto, have failed.

It is interesting to note that Salatrim - made from soy and canola oils and then combined with acids found in vinegar and aged cheese - is not exactly fat-free. It contains only five calories per gram of fat, versus the nine in traditonal fat, because it cannot be completely absorbed by the body. While this may sound alarming, company officials insist that Salatrim will deliver all the sinful taste of fat without sticking to one's ribs. Nabisco scientists, in manipulating the fat so that it cannot be fully digested, have created a 'healthy' ingredient that will still produce a 'slippery' mayonnaise or a moist and chewy chocolate cake. The downside is that it could cause digestive problems in some people. Initial versions of Procter & Gamble's Olestra, a fake fat that is indigestible, caused such disorders, and the manufacturer has been seeking government approval for seven years.

Given the hassle and cost, why should companies seek to squeeze into an already overblown market? A US dairy company, that has tested unsuccessfully 36 fat replacements since 1991, estimates that there are more than 130 such products on the market. The NutraSweet division of Monsanto launched one in 1988 and fell flat on its face - for a leading spot in a fake-fat market estimated to be worth no more than dollars 100m annually. However, it is generally agreed that the right fake fat will create a market worth billions almost overnight.

These growth industries are all based on the fatty state of Americans, adults and children. The study released last week by the National Centre for Health Statistics identified an alarming obesity trend. The number of overweight adults, which had remained stable at about a fourth of the population from 1960 to 1980, suddenly jumped to one third between 1980 and 1991. Obesity was defined as being 20 per cent or more above desirable weight - 25 pounds over for an average woman of 5 feet 4 inches, and 30 pounds over for an average man of 5 feet 10 inches. Statistics for children have not yet been released, but officials warn that their obesity rates are growing even faster.

The cost of this growing obesity has been conservatively estimated by Graham Colditz, at Harvard Medical School, at dollars 69bn a year - based on the costs of medical problems tied to obesity, such as gall bladder disease, adult diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. The reasons, in addition to too much food and inadequate exercise, are also related to other sociological trends. More TV viewing - and thus increased exposure to food advertising estimated at dollars 36- 40bn a year - is one example.

There is also the decline of compulsory physical education classes in hard-pressed school districts and the decline of the once-proud green vegetable in American diets. Former President George Bush touched the national psyche when he proclaimed that broccoli was 'yukky'.