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.