The Big Queasy

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

The next day, says Bonner, he got a voice-mail message from a woman in Frito-Lay's public-relations office. "At first I thought it was people in my newsroom pulling my leg," he says. "But both Frito-Lay and Procter & Gamble found out about the cartoon because they have clipping services that follow any mention of olestra."

Bonner says the public-relations people were convinced he'd gotten his information from CSPI. "I said I'd never heard of that group," he adds. "Then they asked me where I'd gotten the information. I said from the warning label. They said that's an informational label, not a warning label."

The next week Bonner drew another cartoon. This time he put a dog in diapers and called him "Ole Lester," but he never heard from the corporate truth squad. The experience left Bonner shaking his head. "Interestingly enough, they deny they even have a public-relations machine," he says.

The commotion surrounding olestra's debut on America's dinner table often seems surreal. Even conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh has gotten into the act, praising the product on his show. "I never thought the day would come I'd really like Rush Limbaugh," gushed Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper at the company's annual meeting last fall. "He made a fan out of me."

Last September CSPI pulled off a PR coup of its own. The consumer group trotted out the actor who portrayed the "Frito Kid" on television in the 1950s to denounce olestra at a Dallas press conference. Actor and songwriter Chris McCarty, whose father served as Frito-Lay's first vice president for advertising, dramatized his disgust with Frito-Lay's use of olestra by chopping up bags of Max potato and tortilla chips before the television cameras. The move was seen as an act of betrayal at Frito-Lay, where a statue of McCarty as the Frito Kid still stands in the lobby of the corporate headquarters.

But despite the uproar, Procter & Gamble is convinced there will be a strong demand for olestra. Kimbell says P&G has agreements with a dozen snack manufacturers and is building a factory near Cincinnati to manufacture enough olestra to satisfy America's craving for fake fat.

Whether olestra will do much to slim Ame-rica's waistline is another question. After the introduction of the sugar substitute Nutrasweet, the consumption of real sugar rose dramatically. And a study by a Drexel University nutritionist showed that people who reduced their fat intake by eating fat substitutes like olestra actually increased their overall intake of fat, since they still felt hungry after eating fat-free goodies and grabbed an extra cheeseburger to make up for it.

But when it comes to food, Americans like to think they can eat it and lose it at the same time. While P&G says it currently plans to use olestra only in chips and crackers, it's holding out the possibility of asking the FDA to approve the sale of olestra as a cooking oil. That means the day could come when French fries will be cooked in fake fat at your favorite greaseless spoon.

"You know how chips are--you can't eat just one," says Grand Junction's Burmeister with a smile. "Everyone wants to have their chips and eat them, too.

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