Why Olestra?

The exhibit was produced in response to one of the eight global messages of the "CHEMistry for Life" project:

"Not even chemists are perfect!" It is human decisions and actions which are responsible for the benefits and risks associated with chemistry"

It was felt within the Science Museum that one way of tackling this difficult message was to introduce visitors to the idea that discussions around subjects relating to the chemical industry involve social, moral, as well as scientific issues. It follows from this that decisions made on such issues take into account the views of a wide variety of people with different agendas, not just chemists.

The exhibition was developed so visitors could directly participate in a discussion about a chemical subject. Therefore the subject chosen for the exhibition needed to satisfy several criteria. It had to be:

  • a subject relating to chemistry and the chemical industry;
  • easy for visitors to associate with, ie. part of their everyday lives; - easy for visitors to comment on;
  • something to grab visitors attention;
  • an unresolved contemporary subject that is still under discussion;
  • a subject that would allow us to present several different sides to the debate in a balanced way.

After consultation with various bodies, the Science Museum produced a short-list of three possible areas that would satisfy the above criteria:

  • food
  • environment
  • pharmaceuticals

Science Museum chose food as it is the most relevant to a greater proportion of the audience, in terms of age, gender and background. Within the area of food, the Science Museum identified three areas they could concentrate on:

  • food colourings and a possible link to hyperactivity to children
  • sweeteners and a possible link to cancer in rats
  • Olestra, a substitute for fat, and associated problems

The Science Museum tested the different areas on visitors and found out that Olestra grabbed the attention of many visitors. So they decided to focus the exhibition on Olestra.

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