The Big Queasy

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

Despite the tales of digestive uproar, Burmeister says the potato chips proved popular with local shoppers. People in other areas even asked City Market to ship them some. "We felt for a while like we were becoming a mail-order operation," she says. "There was one lady who came over from Longmont just to buy the chips."

Frito-Lay hired local dieticians to stand next to grocery displays of Max chips and answer questions from worried consumers. "Because of the publicity it received, people asked, 'Is this safe for me, and will I have a reaction?'" says Burmeister.

The dieticians told anxious chip lovers the potato chips were fine if eaten in moderation and as part of a balanced diet. "There isn't a food out there that somebody doesn't have a reaction to," says Burmeister. "This is a product that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and it's not up to us to tell people what they can and cannot eat."

The dieticians weren't the only ground troops P&G called on to defend its wunderfat. As luck would have it, a former mayor of Grand Junction was available to lend a hand.

Reford Theobold still sits on the Grand Junction City Council. He also runs a small marketing business and works part-time for P&G, traveling the Western Slope setting up grocery displays for Crest toothpaste and other products. As critical stories about olestra showed up in the local press, P&G asked Theobold to help it fight back.

Theobold says P&G had initially decided to leave the public-relations effort in Grand Junction to Frito-Lay but changed its mind after watching olestra become a whipping boy. "It was Frito-Lay's test market," he says. "P&G was obligated to take a backseat and watch. Then this strange outfit out of Washington, D.C., started a smear campaign. They used scare tactics. It was like, 'You may die; call us and we'll tell you how.' It was incredibly irresponsible. They were purveyors of pseudo-science. If you listened to them, you'd eat only tofu and drink Perrier."

To fend off CSPI's ad blitz, Theobold visited with local reporters, dropping off packets of pro-olestra information and arguing that the decision of whether to eat Max chips was as much a matter of personal independence as personal taste.

Redoubling its offensive, Procter & Gamble decided to send one of the inventors of olestra to Grand Junction to speak to a group of local doctors. During a meeting at St. Mary's Hospital, scientist Greg Allgood told the physicians that people who associated olestra with gastrointestinal misery were simply mistaken. "It's a plumbing problem, if you will," Allgood was quoted as saying in the Daily Sentinel. "It's not related to olestra. It's not possible."

Allgood, who heads up regulatory and clinical development for P&G's food division, told the group the company had been shocked by the spreading controversy over the new product. He said the FDA required the warning label because a small percentage of test subjects who ate "hefty" amounts of chips suffered diarrhea and other symptoms. But he claimed the same thing would have happened if they'd consumed large quantities of regular chips.

Those who phoned the CSPI hotline claimed otherwise. Jacobson says his group got more than sixty calls from Junctionites like Loback and Kirtland who had unpleasant experiences with olestra. But some locals agree with Theobold that the whole controversy was blown out of proportion by a bunch of outside agitators from the East Coast.

"It was people who assumed we were the unwashed out here in the middle of nowhere who were being taken advantage of by this big corporation," says Dick Maynard, owner of KEKB and another morning disc jockey. "We were inundated by the anti-olestra folks. There were mass mailings to all the homes here, some of which were quite grotesque." Maynard says he tried the chips and had no ill effects--"but I have the digestive tract of a billy goat."

Frito-Lay ended its test run of Max potato chips in Grand Junction in December. Burmeister says one local woman was so upset over the departure of the fake-fat munchies that she bought a freezer and stocked it with bags of Max before they disappeared from store shelves.

"She was on a diet and wanted to have something she couldn't," says Burmeister.

The only olestra products available now in Grand Junction are the Nabisco Wheat Thins and Ritz crackers introduced last month. But Nabisco is keeping up the public-relations offensive; just last week the company delivered boxes of fat-free Ritz crackers to every doctor and dietician in Mesa County.

While olestra's critics are deadly serious about their allegation that the product is dangerous, one of the biggest headaches for Procter & Gamble has been olestra's comic potential.

Last year David Letterman came up with a top-ten list of slogans for the fat substitute. Among his suggestions: "Look like Siskel, eat like Ebert"; "From the chemical vat to your mouth"; "Less noisy than liposuction, safer than barfing"; "Certified by the Mexican Food and Drug Administration"; and "Hey, lard-ass...this fat's for you!"

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