The Big Queasy
Buying a box of crackers at a supermarket in Grand Junction would ordinarily be uneventful. But these days even a humble cracker is the stuff of controversy, as the City Market checkout clerk is happy to explain.
"I never got sick from eating them," she reassures an anxious customer. "The people who got sick ate a whole bag full of chips. They were fat pigs."
The bagger standing next to her, a high-school boy working after school, smirks at the clerk as he looks for the warning label on the side of the box. "Here it is!" he proclaims as he points to the side of a carton of Wheat Thins and smiles maliciously.
The label sounds like something that would have been dreamed up by the patron saint of high-school boys, Alfred E. Neuman of Mad magazine. "This product contains olestra," it reads. "Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients."
For the past year, Grand Junction has been one big olestra test kitchen as snack-food giants Frito-Lay and Nabisco have test-marketed chips and crackers made with Procter & Gamble's controversial fat-free fat. Depending on who's doing the telling, olestra is either a miracle product for overweight snackers or the most insidious additive to worm its way into America's digestive tract since the introduction of the sugar substitute saccharin in the 1970s.
Last year Grand Junction was proclaimed the "diar-rhea capital of Colorado" by a consumer watchdog group alarmed by anecdotal reports of intestinal torment. Residents were treated to dueling advertising campaigns, including an anti-olestra television commercial that zeroed in on a fake dog-food can and highlighted the warning label. "If you saw that, would you give it to your dog?" asked the announcer.
Whether or not you'd give it to Fido, if you lived in Grand Junction you were likely to find it on your doorstep. Frito-Lay distributed thousands of samples of its fat-free Max potato chips made with olestra and targeted the sleepy Grand Valley's 100,000 residents with promotions, splashy ads and a sophisticated public-relations campaign designed to counteract what one Frito-Lay executive called "every corporation's nightmare."
Junction residents who sampled the chips soon found themselves monitoring their own digestive functions. And as stories circulated of potato-chip eaters doubling over in cramps or racing to the bathroom, the state of the city's bowels became a matter of more than personal interest.
It still is. Last month two new olestra products--Nabisco's Wheat Thins and Ritz crackers--were rolled out in Grand Junction. And the isolated town again finds itself the target of one of the retail food industry's most expensive public-relations campaigns. For P&G, there's a lot more than corporate pride at stake as it positions olestra for entry into the $15 billion snack-food market. The food conglomerate has spent more than $200 million developing the product and is determined to quash the constant criticism it endures from its Washington-based nemesis, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Procter & Gamble not only makes massive ad buys in its test markets (Max potato chips also have been distributed in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin). It also hires local celebrities and nutritionists to reassure the public that olestra is safe. In Grand Junction, that has meant putting a former mayor on the payroll.
"We're not sure what CSPI's motivation is for this," says P&G spokeswoman Becky Kimbell of the consumer group's olestra-bashing. "We're somewhat surprised, because in the past CSPI has been committed to helping Americans lower the fat in their diet. Our goal in this is to educate the public. The real science is what's important."
But for CSPI, the scuffle over olestra has become a no-holds-barred fight against a corporation it claims is willing to jeopardize America's health in the name of profits. The group maintains a 1-888-OLESTRA number to collect complaints from those who believe they've experienced unfortunate side effects from consuming the product, and CSPI director Michael Jacobson can recite a catalogue of horror stories.
"One guy called us up and said he'd just pooped in his pants," Jacobson says. "What if that happens to a child at school? That could be very traumatic. One woman told us she had to run out of a meeting and then couldn't leave the bathroom. She was very embarrassed."
Topics that make most people squirm come easily to Jacobson's lips. "Anal leakage," "underwear spotting" and "fecal emergencies" are part of his olestra lingo. Procter & Gamble spent 25 years developing olestra, a sugar-and-vegetable oil derivative that looks and tastes like fat but passes through the body undigested.
For Jacobson, olestra--which P&G markets under the brand name "Olean"--is one more fake food undermining the health of Americans. Even worse, he believes the "fat free" tag on chips and crackers containing olestra will lead many to believe the products are healthful. Not only does olestra disrupt normal digestion, says Jacobson, it also interferes with the body's ability to absorb vital nutrients from fruits and vegetables, including some substances that may help prevent cancer.
"There's an underlying implication this will help you lose weight," he says. "To a significant extent, the advertising is persuading people this is a safe product and they ought to eat it."
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."
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!"
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."
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.