Longform

The Big Queasy

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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.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers