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The Big Queasy

The junk-food guinea pigs of Grand Junction have had some strange gut reactions to olestra.

In February CSPI obtained the results of a confidential study commissioned by Frito-Lay that reported olestra caused "anal oil leakage" in 3 to 9 percent of consumers. CSPI's own telephone surveys indicated that as many as 15 percent of olestra snackers had experienced some kind of adverse effect from eating the product.

But Kimbell insists that only a small minority of people suffer any digestive discomfort. She says the effects are similar to the way beans, cabbage and high-fiber foods upset some people's stomachs. "The overwhelming majority of people will eat it and have no problem," she says.

In fact, consumers in the three test markets have bought enough of the chips and crackers that P&G is building a new factory to manufacture olestra. When that facility goes on line in Ohio next year, snack items made with olestra will be available all over the country.

For now, Grand Junction is the only place in the western United States to have sampled the new product. And some residents of the Colorado River town say they'll never forget their first experience with olestra.

Grand Junction is still a country town at heart, and the city's top radio station is country music standby KEKB-FM. The station's popular morning show serves as a community forum, as listeners and deejays chat about what's happening in town. And last spring, what was happening was olestra.

"We made jokes on the air about it pretty consistently," says Randy Hampton, a reporter and deejay for the station. "A month after olestra was introduced, there was a big flu epidemic. I said it causes diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and other olestra-type symptoms."

But not everyone was so amused. The Center for Science in the Public Interest decided to spend $10,000 on anti-olestra ads in Grand Junction, buying full pages in the Daily Sentinel and running its dog-food spot on local television stations. Frito-Lay and Procter & Gamble had their own large ad budgets, and the result was a public-relations shootout that rivaled anything seen in the old West.

"It was something you couldn't avoid talking about," says Hampton. "We got calls from Frito-Lay every day. They had PR people all over it. For weeks it was an ongoing battle over who could promote their side. When we'd do a story on a press release from CSPI, immediately we'd have people from Procter & Gamble on the phone. I can remember executives from P&G and Frito-Lay calling me on cell phones from airports to immediately respond to CSPI's press releases."

As stories of "fecal emergencies" began to turn up in the local press, things got nasty fast. CSPI gave local reporters the phone numbers of people who called its toll-free hotline to report unpleasant reactions to the chips. The result was front-page coverage of bathroom distress.

After eating a plate full of potato chips with a sandwich for dinner, Grand Junction resident Barbara Kirtland spent much of the next morning in the restroom. "I got to work and violently got diarrhea," she recalls. "I could attribute it to nothing else. The diarrhea hit me really hard."

Kirtland says she'd seen the potato chips promoted in her local supermarket and was eager to try a fat-free version of one of her favorite foods. "I jumped on it like everybody else," she says. "Now I'm staying away from all the artificial-fat products. I feel like it's rubber-latex fat. I'll never go near it again."

The case of little Joseph Seriani also became well-known to Grand Junction residents. The eleven-year-old ate a whole bag of Max chips and then spent the next several days with severe diarrhea. He missed three days of school and for a week suffered the unsavory side effect known as "anal leakage."

"I'm positive the potato chips caused it," says Joseph's mother, Pam Loback. "I don't think he wants any more of those. We had to get a prescription to get the diarrhea to stop."

Loback says she was unaware that the fat-free chips she bought at the store contained anything controversial. "I would never have thought to look for a warning on a bag of something I bought at the store to feed my family," she says. "I didn't even make the connection until I saw it on the news."

P&G says there is no evidence olestra prompted the diarrhea experienced by Kirtland and Loback's son. "There's no way of proving that Olean caused that," says Kimbell. "It could be something else they ate, or a virus. Half of Americans suffer digestive problems within a three-month period."

Both Kirtland and Loback soon found themselves fielding calls from newspapers and television stations around the country. Anyone with anything to say about olestra was an interview target for reporters chronicling the fake-fat saga.

"We were contacted by all the major networks, Time magazine and USA Today," says Dixie Burmeister, consumer information coordinator for City Market, the Western Slope's largest grocery chain.

Burmeister is the Betty Crocker of Grand Junction. She writes a column for the Daily Sentinel's food section and arranges numerous food demonstrations and classes in local supermarkets. She soon found that talking to the media about olestra required discretion, especially when dealing with possible double entendres. When asked by a Denver television station how the chips were selling, she had to stop herself from saying "They're moving well."

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