Sucrose polyester (SPE) is a tasteless, odourless substance which reduces plasma cholesterol concentrations and may therefore be valuable as a fat substitute in human foodstuffs. It has recently been approved for use in snack foods by the United States Federal Drug Administration. The current study was designed to investigate its effects on gastrointestinal physiology and nutrient absorption in human subjects. A 6-month (2×3-month periods) double-blind, lacebo-controlled, randomized, cross-over trial of SPE and control fat was performed in healthy free-living volunteers. Subjects consumed 20–40 g of SPE daily (mean 26·8 (se 6·8) g) which reduced the intake of total and saturated fat but had no effect on energy intake or body weight. Plasma cholesterol and triacylglycerols were reduced. The frequency of bowel movements and their urgency were increased and anal leakage occured in 7·2% of subjects. Abdominal pain was more frequent in subjects receiving SPE and was significantly greater than in the control group after 8 weeks feeding. The plasma concentrations of vitamin E and six carotenoids were significantly reduced. Routine haematology and biochemistry, other vitamins, intestinal biopsies, bile-salt retention, rectal prostaglandins, fractional Ca absorption and aminopyrine metabolism were unaffected. The ingestion of foods containing 20–40 g SPE daily provoked significant gastro-intestinal problems. This intake is greater than that to be expected from the use of SPE in savoury snack foods, for which it has been approved by the United States Federal Drug Administration. However, the favourable effects on lipid profiles must be balanced against the reduction in the concentrations of vitamins and carotenoids, as these compounds may have beneficial effects on health through protection from free-radical oxidative stress.