Article Thumbnail

‘Wow! These Chips Just Made Me Crap My Pants’: The Olestra Story

The fat substitute came with a warning label for ‘loose stools,’ but Procter & Gamble wagered that Americans wanted to snack without weight gains more than they cared about underwear stains

Forget Thanksgiving. The most gluttonous day of the year is Super Bowl Sunday, where bowl after bowl and paper plate after paper plate is filled with finger-food bacchanalia that would make even the mad genius responsible for the TGI Friday’s appetizer selection blush (and certainly the ancient Romans). And so, all week leading up to game day, we’ll be offering up our own menu of scientific investigations, origin stories and majestic feats of snacking that not even the biggest sporting event of the year can top. Read all of the stories here.

Early in David Fincher’s Fight Club, Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, gives a monologue meant to channel the anxieties of millions of men. Listening to him is Edward Norton, whose character has just lost his apartment and everything he owns to a gas explosion. “Murder, crime, poverty — these things don’t concern me,” Tyler says. “What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear, Rogaine, Viagra, olestra.”

Fight Club came out in 1999. But the fat substitute olestra had dropped into American snacks a few years earlier and quickly came to symbolize all that was wrong with modern existence. Olestra, also known by its brand name Olean, had become shorthand for a nation that had lost its way. 

In 1997, Procter & Gamble was about to launch its new fat-free snack foods via Nabisco and Frito-Lay. To see if Americans would munch on the chips fried in calorie-free olestra, they made Indianapolis their open-air testing ground. Nearly 500,000 samples of olestra-fried, fat-free versions of Pringles, Lays, Ruffles and Doritos were handed out, and the response was largely receptive. Receptive enough, in fact, that consumers were willing to overlook the required warning label that read, “Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools.” 

Most people didn’t even seem to mind the diarrhea. To that end, Matt Hale, a mechanic, told the New York Times, “I had to lay off these for a while because they gave me diarrhea and loose stools,” before adding, “But I didn’t think it was severe enough so I couldn’t buy them again.” This sort of pro-diarrhea response gave P&G a needed boost of confidence that Americans eager to snack without weight gains would rush to embrace their new fat-free foods. 

Meanwhile, as soon as olestra received FDA approval, late-night talk show hosts and comics had a field day. On January 24, 1996, the same day the FDA approved olestra for human consumption, David Letterman’s Top 10 List was dedicated to the fake fat. “We can’t tell you exactly how they make it, but we can say this: Ten monkeys go into a room, and only nine come out,” Letterman joked. Later, he invited Chris Elliott to perform a taste test wherein Elliott ate regular fat from a container and then followed that up with a spatula of olestra. He didn’t finish the bit before the olestra had evacuated his bowels. 

Jay Leno, on the other hand, went full-on scat humor, joking, “When you’re through with the Pringles, you might want to hang on to the can.” 

Soon, olestra jokes were everywhere. The 2001 Futurama episode “Bending in the Wind” begins with a building being torn down by construction workers, who unearth a relic that’s 10 centuries old. Fry is stoked at the sight of it, explaining that it’s “a bag of olestra chips from my time.” The gag ends with Fry’s robot co-worker, Bender, eating some of the chips and immediately crapping out a brick, which is followed by another brick, and then a rapid succession of bricks.

A year later, in the romantic comedy The Sweetest Thing, stars Jason Bateman and Thomas Jane used olestra for some character-bonding. As Bateman tosses some of the fat-free chips in his mouth, Jane warns him, “Those are those fat-free chips that cause anal leakage.”

“You cause anal leakage,” Bateman fires back, between bites of chips. 

“It says so on the bag,” Jane informs him. 

Bateman checks the label, then spits out the chips: “What kind of marketing brainiac puts anal leakage on his product? How can they even sell that crap?”

But sketch-comedy show MAD TV probably went the furthest when it dropped a fake ad for a new fake fat they called “Cholestra.” The even newer fat substitute promised its consumers “10 percent less anal leakage.” That’s it. That’s the whole joke. The skit lasts for three minutes, and it’s just lots of different ways to offer customers 10 percent less anal leakage.

Meanwhile, complaints from consumers in Indianapolis grew in number and were gathered by watchdog groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), who later published a scathing report on olestra. The CSPI pushed for the FDA to ban the product, but the FDA thought the warning label for “loose stools” was enough.

All these years later, the question at the center of this fat-free maelstrom remains: How did a chip that causes anal leakage ever get so far to begin with? 

Frank Nemec, a gastroenterologist in Las Vegas, remembers being interviewed on TV when olestra first came out. And to this day, the lab-created fat substitute still makes no sense to him. “It just sounded so ludicrous,” Nemec recalls. “The idea that you’d take anything, voluntarily, so that you do not absorb fat…” For him the risks were as obvious as they were serious: “I was concerned that there would be malabsorption, specifically of the fatty-soluble vitamins — A, D, E and K — because we know that typically occurs in other instances, such as steatorrhea, which causes conditions like the anal-leakage problem that people get with olestra.”

P&G had spent $200 million over 25 years to develop olestra, so they fought hard for their product. “This is something people really want,” Chris Hassall, a senior scientist with P&G, said at the time. “Consumer testing tells us they are very excited about the idea of snack foods which deliver the full fat taste but don’t have any fat in them.” 

Nemec has tons of empathy for patients who have faced rectal issues from various medical conditions, and takes their issues very seriously. “You get these patients with pancreatic exocrine insufficiency, or who have had a prior pancreatectomy and now can’t absorb fat. They are miserable people. And the leakage problem is no joke. I mean, they don’t have the sensation that anything’s coming out. They just look down, and all of a sudden, there’s a pool of fatty stool on their seat.” Which, again, is why Nemec could never understand why someone would voluntarily eat something that can cause such negative effects to their digestive system. “For us gastroenterologists, we’re always trying to help people who have dire and serious GI problems. So to take a substance that actually induced fat malabsorption just seemed crazy,” he says.

By contrast, Harvery Anderson, a nutrition science professor at the University of Toronto, who was also a P&G consultant, argued back in the 1990s, “If you eat a small serving of olestra potato chips, it will be neither here nor there.” He reasoned that the consumer has the power to self-regulate, aided by their ability to tell whether or not they’ve shit themselves. “If you overdosed, there would be relatively quick feedback from the old digestive system,” he argued. 

To get olestra approval from the FDA, P&G took a page from the tobacco industry’s lobbying playbook, per a Harvard University review. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who had received money from P&G’s Political Action Committee wrote a joint letter in 1995 to the Secretary of Health & Human Services, arguing that olestra was safe and should be approved by the FDA. Along those lines, on January 4, 1996, in anticipation of the pending FDA approval of olestra, Senator John Glenn made the final push from the floor of the Senate, saying that the FDA shouldn’t stand in the way of innovation (no matter what that innovation did to the bowels of the country). 

There was one key holdout, however: Congresswoman Julia Carson, a Democrat who represented a district that covered much of olestra’s test city — Indianapolis. Her constituents had contacted her en masse, complaining of GI problems and asking her to do something about it. Carson planned to press the FDA to add a stronger warning label, one that went beyond mentioning “loose stools” and instead warned about the serious health effects of fake fat. P&G responded with more lobbying pressure, and even called Carson’s personal physician in an attempt to change her mind

In the end, it didn’t matter. No other congressional leaders joined her opposition, and P&G won. Analyst William Pecoriello expressed to the New York Times the general optimism of the investor class and their ballooning belief that olestra was about to change the world. The problem was, as soon as it hit the market, gastroenterologists like Nemec saw a spike in patients with gut problems, and it didn’t take long for them to identify the culprit. “I had patients that had anal leakage, and I’d go over their diet history,” Nemec recalls. “If they stopped eating the potato chips with the olestra, they got better. So if there were patients who came in complaining of anal leakage, you’d always go through a diet survey and ask specifically about olestra products.”

There was another health surprise waiting to be discovered, too. Although olestra was a fat substitute, the people who ate it still gained weight. “The subsequent studies, done in the private sector and at universities, showed that people eating these fat substitutes did not lose weight,” Nemec explains. “Much in the same way that people who drink diet beverages don’t lose weight.”

Two years after it was introduced, olestra had failed to win over consumers, with the FDA receiving more than 20,000 customer complaints. Even after the FDA removed the infamous loose-stool warning label (hilariously, at P&G’s request), customers still weren’t interested. Olestra products disappeared from store shelves shortly thereafter, with the fake fat left to be a grease stain on our collective cultural memory, summed up by two simple words: anal leakage. 

Or maybe not. In 2009, P&G announced they were now using olestra-like chemicals to make eco-friendly paints and lubricants, called Sefose. “They built a whole factory to produce this stuff, so I guess it’s a good idea,” Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said at the time. “As long as you’re not lubricating your gastrointestinal tract, it’s fine.”