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The Big Queasy

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

Jay Leno chimed in last fall. "The reports say olestra is said to cause diarrhea and, in their words now, 'anal leakage,'" Leno told his audience. "So folks, when you're through with the Pringles, you might want to hang on to the can."

Procter & Gamble's fat-free brainchild has also become an object of derision on the Internet. Several Web pages are devoted to olestra, including an "oleak" parody page ("Get ready to taste misery") and a voluminous olestra haiku site that has drawn submissions from across the country.

The haiku page reads like an anthology of junior-high-school humor. "What's that greasy plume/sending up this spicy fume?/My olestra bloom," offers one contributor. "Sally Bowels" offers her own creative verse: "Hostess gift for jerks?/Try olestra cheese and chips./The gift keeps giving." Yet another haiku artist takes a shot at olestra's creator: "Procter and Gamble/ becomes affluent/as I become effluent."

While the controversy over olestra became a matter of public interest only last year, P&G has been squaring off against consumer groups over the product since 1987. Olestra's approval by the FDA for use in "savory snacks"--it finally got the green light in January 1996--was bitterly opposed by CSPI, which mustered a phalanx of scientists and physicians to challenge the introduction of fake fat into America's diet. Jacobson says olestra has many dangers that are actually worse than the digestive problems that have gotten all the attention. "In a way, the lucky people are those who get cramps and say, 'I'll never eat those again,'" he says.

Lost in the focus on olestra's intestinal twists and turns is its proven ability to prevent the absorption of many vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Since olestra isn't digested by the body, it can interfere with the digestion of the foods that travel along with it. That means a few fat-free Ritz crackers eaten with a salad could prevent the body from garnering the nutrients found in the vegetables.

It's been proven that people who have a diet rich in fruits and vegetables have lower rates of cancer. Scientists aren't sure exactly why that is, but some suspect that nutrients known as carotenoids, which are found in many vegetables, may play a role in helping the body fight off cancers. Olestra can prevent the body from absorbing carotenoids, as well as vitamins A, D, E and K. The FDA was concerned enough about the issue to require P&G to add those vi-tamins to olestra, although it's not clear if that will make much difference in helping the body absorb them.

A study by scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health estimated that widespread consumption of olestra could cause several thousand additional cases of cancer in coming years, simply by depleting snack eaters' bodies of the natural cancer fighters found in vegetables. "Over the long term, the loss of carotenoids will increase the incidence of cancer," predicts Jacobson.

Procter & Gamble insists there is no proof that carotenoids prevent cancer. Kimbell says that if people eat a healthy diet over the course of the day, they shouldn't be affected by their olestra snacks. "In a normal day, with all the foods you eat, it won't be significant," she says.

To reassure the public, Procter & Gamble has recruited its own posse of scientists and physicians. Two former secretaries of health and human services, Louis Sullivan and Otis Bowen, have become paid spokesmen for the product. Bowen is a medical doctor and former governor of Indiana, where Frito-Lay is now test marketing its Wow! potato chips made with olestra. (P&G has sold the rights to use olestra to several other snack-food companies, including Frito-Lay and Nabisco, and it works closely with those companies in promoting the additive.)

Other well-known public figures jumping on the olestra bandwagon include Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council on Science and Health, a trade group, and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Both Whelan and Ornstein have written newspaper columns defending olestra. Neither disclosed that their respective organizations had received substantial funding from Procter & Gamble.

P&G won't disclose how much it has spent to promote olestra. But trade publications estimate the company will shell out $5 million to $10 million in Columbus, Ohio, where it is now testing Pringles fat-free potato chips. The company hired a unit of Squier Knapp & Ochs, the Washington firm that made President Clinton's campaign commercials, to fashion its olestra advertising. It also enlisted Clinton's campaign pollsters to work on public relations.

Dee Bonner, a cartoonist for the tiny Shelbyville, Indiana News, discovered just what kind of public relations money can buy when he drew a cartoon earlier this spring. The panel showed a woman walking down the grocery aisle with her husband and a cart full of Wow! potato chips. "If you're buying those olestra products again, we're gonna need more diapers!" said her husband.

The day after the cartoon appeared, Bonner was stunned to receive a phone call from a high-level scientist at Procter & Gamble. "He was very upset with the cartoon," Bonner recalls. "He was very adamant on making sure I was fully briefed on olestra and understood what it was about. I thought it was a funny phone call."

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