Food for thought

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The Independent Online
At some point during the week, you may have come across a new name: Olestra. Remember? It's not Anthea Turner's younger sister, who is threatening to run her own cable show interviewing lottery winners and has the same line in nasty sweaters as her sister. Her name is Wendy, not Olestra, and I hope that this is the last you'll ever hear of her.

The true Olestra is a fat. "A fat what?" you ask. Not a fat anything - a fat found in foods. On Wednesday, Procter and Gamble, who have brought us endless soap powders and foodstuffs, finally got the go-ahead from the US Food and Drug Administration to produce grub made with the new zero-calorie fat. First off the starting-blocks will be Olean potato crisps, containing half the calories of your normal crisps and none of the fat. Cakes, biscuits and chocolate will all follow - all tasting delightfully greasy, but leaving no fat behind them.

I'm not going to waste space explaining the molecular biology of Olestra (which, of course, I fully understand, having attended a grammar school and nearly passed chemistry O-level). Suffice it to say that Olestra's particular property is simply to pass straight through you.

And that, say its critics, is also its drawback. There is a very slight chance that the completion of its passage through the body may be - how shall I put it - unheralded. The usual security warnings may not sound, the gates may fail to close in time. Great for the manufacturers of personal hygiene products (including, perhaps, Procter and Gamble), but appalling for the rest of us. So there is now a suggestion that Olean packets might feature a warning that their contents may "cause intestinal discomfort, or a laxative effect".

Now, some folks may be keen enough on combining a low-calorie diet with the eating habits of a Viennese aristocrat to run this risk, but not me. In my experience, the body is unruly and difficult enough without adding Olestra to it. All my life, this fleshly temple has been letting me down. It has ruined romantic moments, spoiled dramatic gestures and failed to respond at times of crisis.

Consider. Adolescence is not a great time of life for any male. At 16, my confidence was shaky, veering from arrogance to a feeling of worthlessness. I wanted two things above all: to be seen as the romantic philosopher- prince that I really was, and (related to this) to get my leg over. Cue the boil. Not a pimple, or a slight skin disturbance, but an enormous, swollen, angry boil. And not hidden on the leg, or the shoulder, or even the bum, but slap in the middle of my noble, contemplative forehead. "There you are," it seemed to say, "write a poem about that."

Travellers to exciting, exotic lands will testify to the way that the body's minor caprices can dominate the mind's endeavours. Usually, the problem is food-poisoning. On almost any morning at the foot of the Sphinx, in the gardens of the Taj Mahal, or by the fountains of the Alhambra, there will be one man or woman whose entire being is focused on a square inch of sphincter, and whose only thought (despite all the splendour and history surrounding them) is whether they are going to make it. Next time you are at one of these places, watch carefully. Or indeed (as Wendy's sister might say), it could be you.

The problem is that most of us have a completely unrealistic mental image of our physical selves. It is constructed in early adulthood, at an optimum time. We "know" we are fat, or bald, or pant when we run upstairs. But somehow those awful holiday snaps lie, those jibes from family and colleagues exaggerate. We carry around with us our true selves: younger, thinner, more graceful and fitter. And then something goes wrong - a bad bout of flatulence, a sty, a millisecond's clumsiness - and the image dissolves, leaving us face to face with mortality.

Which, I contend, does not need some new product like Olestra to make it any worse.