Newest ‘Top Ten Plus’ additive to avoid was once the stuff of ‘bathroom humor’

Posted by
August 20, 2013

The next addition for our “Top Ten Plus” additives to avoid was included among Time magazine’s “50 worst inventions.” At one time it required a warning label that consumption “may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools,” and a respected consumer group has dubbed it the “most complained about additive ever.” It interferes with the body’s ability to absorb some essential vitamins, and originally its manufacturer, Procter & Gamble, wasn’t even sure if it should be marketed as a drug or a food additive. The company subsequently spent hundreds of millions to maneuver it through the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory process and market it to the public.

The Top Ten Plus Food Additives to Avoid:
Number 12 – Olestra (brand name: Olean)

Considering the checkered history of olestra, many had thought this fat substitute had been consigned to the land of really, really stupid ideas. But, alas, it’s somehow remained in the food supply. And thanks to an expanded use, company-determined  “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) proclamation in 2007 and 2010 by Procter & Gamble, you may find olestra not only in a current lineup of Frito Lay’s and Pringles chips, as well as a popular bakery cookie, but it could possibly even turn up in a bevy of  coming food attractions, ranging from mayo to bread to ice cream to breakfast cereals.

Due to an FDA decision ten years ago, olestra-containing products no longer need to carry that warning label about “loose stools,” which made the rounds from late-night stand-up routines to cartoons and even movies, as in this line from the 2002 comedy, The Sweetest Thing: “what kind of marketing brainiac puts anal leakage on his product?”

Professor, author and blogger Marion Nestle, who wrote about the history of the additive, The Selling of Olestra, in a 1998 edition of Public Health Reports, describes the FDA’s actions at the time of olestra’s approval in 1996 by saying, “This peculiar decision – judging olestra ‘safe’ while alerting consumers to its potential hazards – was only the latest episode in a 30-year struggle to bring olestra to market.”

‘Let the consumer beware’ replaces diarrhea alert

If you were paying attention back in the late ’90’s, you may remember all the hoopla surrounding the introduction of fat-free WOW and Pringles chips containing the “new” non-digestable fat substitute olestra. It didn’t take long for adverse reaction reports to start coming in, many collected by the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI, told Food Identity Theft in an email that his organization “received and sent to the FDA more than 2,000 adverse-reaction reports, with people complaining of horrible cramps, terrible diarrhea, and unspeakable smells. Procter & Gamble,” he added “submitted at least 10 times as many reports to the FDA.”

“Curiously, controlled studies have not been able to replicate the gastrointestinal symptoms, which is why the FDA allowed companies to drop the initially required warning label,” Jacobson said.

A member of our team who contacted Frito-Lay inquiring as to what had become of that warning label on products containing olestra, was immediately corrected by a company “nutrition specialist,” who said it was “more of an informational label than a warning label.”  The FDA, she noted, had originally asked that such a label be put on packages “so that it could track the number of adverse effects” to olestra, which had occurred “in a small amount of people” during the initial testing of the fat substitute.

Any such adverse effects reports the company received, she claimed, were sent to the FDA, but there weren’t all that many, and eventually, the agency said the label could be removed, since it appeared that “more people had trouble with lactose intolerance,” which has “a similar effect.” And since the label was removed, she knew of “very few” complaints made to the company about the ingredient.

When our team member pointed out that most lactose intolerant people knew what foods they should be avoiding and asked the Frito-Lay nutrition specialist how someone would know they were reacting to potato chips containing olestra, she replied that it was matter of “cause and effect … you would just assume it was the thing you ate.”

According to CSPI, those WOW chips, which are no longer on the market, were “quietly renamed,” to Lay’s “Light,” a move the group was quoted as saying was “designed to intentionally deceive people into thinking that the product was an entirely new olestra-free lower-calorie chip.”

In 2006, with the warning label gone, and the only mention of olestra appearing on the chip’s ingredient list, CSPI (which very actively opposed the FDA approval of the additive) threatened Lay’s and Pringles (owned at the time by P&G) with a lawsuit if more prominent notice of the controversial ingredient didn’t appear on the packaging. As an apparent result, the labeling was later revised to make mention of “Olean” on the package front.

And then there’s the cookie

Back at P&G headquarters, the search for new markets for olestra-containing foods resulted in “a unique partnership” with 85-year-old Cincinnati-based Busken bakeries.

“Several years ago (P&G) approached us about test marketing a product with olestra,” Dan Busken said in a phone interview, adding “of course it’s had its share of bad press.” But that doesn’t appear to have slowed sales of  the bakery’s “Skinny Cookie,” the olestra-containing version of its smiley face original, over half a million of which have been sold by Busken’s in the last three years.

The Skinny Cookie, which has the required vitamins E, A, K and D added (as olestra depletes the body of those nutrients), cannot be sold “out of a bakery showcase,” but must be packaged in a box or individual unit that has the ingredients listed, Busken said. He described the box as simply listing “olestra right in line with the other ingredients, not called out on the front or anything like the Pringles container does. You can buy one cookie,” he added, “but it would be packaged.”

Busken said that the Skinny Cookie has “been a good story for P&G to take back to headquarters and show that there is a market for using their ingredient in baked goods, not just chips.”

Jacobson’s opinion on the potential olestra-expansion was not quite as cheery. “It would be a shame if food manufacturers started incorporating it into more than the two brands of potato chips in which it has been used for the past decade,” he said.

“Cutting calories from saturated fat is a reasonable goal,” Jacobson added, “but not if comes at the expense of thousands of people suffering gastrointestinal misery.”