Monsanto Takes Edge in Race for Fake Fat : Foods: Procter & Gamble concedes that it’s still not close to winning FDA approval for its low-calorie product.


Employees at Procter & Gamble’s headquarters in Cincinnati frequently sample french-fried potatoes, deep-fried in a low-calorie, fake fat that the company calls Olestra. Those who have munched the fries say the taste differs not a bit from that of any greasy potato stick scooped from the deep-fat cooker at the corner fast-food joint.

That makes Olestra a food product that a diet-conscious world has been awaiting, these folks claim.

Alas for the fat-afflicted and the fat-obsessed, guilt-free potato chips and fried chicken may still be years away. P&G; has mounted a full-court press to force Olestra through the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory maze but concedes that it isn’t close to winning approval.


Meanwhile, the diet conscious can console themselves with a frozen dessert that is said to taste like the richest ice cream but with less than half the calories and practically no fat at all. Monsanto, the chemical firm that gave the world Astroturf, on Thursday gained a big lead in the race to market a fat substitute by introducing its Simple Pleasures.

Simple Pleasures is a frozen dessert made with Simplesse, an all-natural fat substitute developed by Monsanto’s NutraSweet Co. The FDA has certified the product as “generally recognized as safe” for use in frozen desserts, NutraSweet said. The approval gave Monsanto a product that many analysts believe will be more successful even than NutraSweet, the sugar substitute that Monsanto’s marketing quickly made a favorite of consumers.

The market seemed receptive Thursday as Monsanto shares jumped $4.375 to close at $112.25 in composite trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

“The estimates that I have seen show sales of $1 billion a year and as high as $2 billion,” said Jim Lucente, an analyst with Ohio Co. in Cincinnati. “Sales of NutraSweet are under a billion.”

Other analysts, however, projected sales at a more conservative $300 million.

Monsanto said it will use some of the same marketing techniques as it used with NutraSweet--primarily a special logo to help consumers quickly identify products made with Simplesse. But there will be a crucial difference: The NutraSweet unit will form a subsidiary to produce and market Simple Pleasures, while NutraSweet is sold as an ingredient for other products.

“By marketing the product ourselves, we can ensure rapid consumer availability and high quality control of the first product to be made with Simplesse,” said David L. Morley, group vice president and general manager for Simplesse. He said the company plans to have Simple Pleasures on the market by summer.

Morley declined to predict sales figures for Simple Pleasures or to compare expectations to NutraSweet. He said Monsanto believes that after four years of development it has gained an important lead on rivals attempting to develop their own fake fat. Products that compare most closely to Simplesse employ a different technology, he said.

Kraft-General Foods has applied for FDA approval of a protein-based fake fat, for example. PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division and the Anglo-Dutch Unilever Group are also researching fat substitutes.

Simplesse can’t be used in cooked foods because, like NutraSweet, the product breaks down under heat. That’s why Procter & Gamble thinks that Olestra, engineered for cooking, will really appeal to a different market entirely. That makes its potential uses far broader than those of Simplesse, making Olestra for more important to P&G; than Simplesse is to Monsanto, according to food analysts.

“The day P&G; brings out Olestra it will be in potato chips, cookies, french fries--endless products,” predicted Marvin B. Roffman, an analyst with Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia. “We’re talking about major, major big-time markets and billions and billions of dollars. Just think about all of the diet-conscious Americans.”

But Roffman added that he doesn’t expect to see Olestra on the market for three to five years. “Olestra is bogged down in the FDA, and the FDA is starting to make many more demands on P&G.;”

Procter & Gamble would like to think that the FDA’s relatively quick review of Simplesse--18 months--bodes well for Olestra, said spokesman Don Tassone, “but we can’t really conclude that that approval has any significance for our approval. It’s a very different product.”

Olestra, which P&G; submitted for approval in 1987, is considered a synthetic sugar and oil, Tassone explained. Although the product starts with natural ingredients, the patented process for making it produces a “new molecule” that requires extensive FDA reviews. He said the compound is supposed to pass through the body unabsorbed.

Tassone said research on the product actually dates back to development of Crisco cooking fat in 1911. The company believes that it has established that Olestra is safe--those who sample it must sign a release, however--but continues to test it and submit the data to the FDA.