Sunday, August 28, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Moving Targets

Nonfat Pills -- The Jury Is Still Out On Sequester

HOW FAR WOULD YOU GO TO LOWER the fat in your diet? Cut out butter? Switch to skim milk? Stir-fry in broth?

How about taking a little ox bile before each meal?

That's what some people around here are doing, perhaps without knowing it.

The Northwest is the kickoff market for a new product out of Los Angeles called SeQuester. More than 7,000 packages (suggested price: $13.99) were sold in a six-week period from June to mid-July. In some stores, says company president Clark Holcolmb, SeQuester was outselling all other diet products combined.

I bought one of those 7,000. The package says SeQuester is a "natural nutritional fat sequestrant" that "reduces fat from the food you eat." Really? I can feed my cravings and enjoy the taste of high-fat foods without adding that fat to my personal collection?

I flipped the box over, finding more claims but not much about how the pills work. The ingredients, to my untrained eye, looked like mostly fiber.

Fiber is a key element, as I learned when talking with Dr. William Shell, the Beverly Hills cardiologist who invented SeQuester. But the fiber has been heated with sodium choleate - ox bile. The result is a mesh-like substance.

It works, Shell said, like this: You take one or two pills with water 30 minutes before meals. The bile attracts the fat, which gets trapped in the mesh, like fish in a net. The fat is passed through the digestive system and excreted with the indigestible fiber.

"Fiber in general will do that," Shell says. "The activated fiber just makes it more effective."

According to Shell, SeQuester works best with a 1,200-calorie diet: "It doesn't work well without a diet." He also stressed that the pills should be used only with a balanced diet and exercise. The pills come with decent advice on those fronts. (SeQuester doesn't reduce fat already stored in the body; that's what the diet and exercise are for.) The brochure recommends taking the pills for at least 90 days to see results.

Side effects? In one test group, three of 10 people taking the pills experienced excess gas; diarrhea and abdominal cramping also are possible.

What bothers me more is that SeQuester seems to encourage some lack of accountability when it comes to what we put in our mouths. And I worry about people who don't eat normally, don't exercise and don't consult a physician before starting any weight loss or exercise program.

Besides, I still can't tell if SeQuester's claims are true. I consulted Dr. Lawrence Halpern, associate professor of pharmacology at the UW, and wound up with tips that could be used to evaluate any new product.

"I wonder what the scientific evidence is for the reduction of fat," Halpern said. "How much clinical trial has gone into this?"

I called for the data and received a 17-page fax. It included Shell's resume, summaries of five animal studies and six human studies (totaling 122 people) and the protocol for an ongoing study of eight more human subjects.

Halpern was not impressed. Who did the research, and where?

"One says, `An independent Utah laboratory...' " I read.

"Who paid for the study?" Halpern said. If SeQuester's company subsidized the research, "then they're not independent." (Shell's offices paid for the research.)

Halpern puts more credence in studies funded through what he called "normal channels," such as the National Institutes of Health. He'd like to see results published in peer-reviewed journals.

I talked to Shell again. His research hasn't been published, he said, because to do so would reveal trade secrets. "It's very frustrating for me," he said. "We will publish once SeQuester is established."

The decision is in the consumer's hands. "You have to know at what level you're trying to believe this guy," Halpern said. "If you want to believe him without any evidence, that's fine."

I'm inclined to follow the brochure's other advice, on healthful diet and exercise. I know that SeQuester's claims could be true, even if the research hasn't been published. But for some reason I wasn't keen to risk cramps, gas and diarrhea.

And that was before I found out about the bile.

Molly Martin is assistant editor of Pacific.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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