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For Immediate
June 10, 1998


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New Actions Opposing Olestra

CSPI protests deceptive labeling and advertising
Warns of health risks from fake fat

The "fat from hell" is how one consumer described Olean, Procter & Gamble’s indigestible fat, at a press conference today in Washington, D.C. With a key Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory committee reviewing olestra next week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) detailed new actions in its battle against the fake fat.

Olean has been highly controversial, because it apparently is sickening more and more consumers. At least 8,000 consumers already have formally reported gastrointestinal symptoms that they believe were caused by Olean.

CSPI, with the victims in mind, has petitioned the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to stop deceptive multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns for Olean -- the trade name for olestra -- and for products made with it. The national campaigns have included TV commercials, and ads in popular magazines and medical journals, Internet sites, and videotapes.

"Orwellian doublespeak is raised to a new level," CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson said, "when Procter & Gamble advertises that Olean makes snacks ‘a little healthier’ and Frito-Lay touts its Wow chips as ‘safe for everyone.’ The New England Journal of Medicine is not allowing a deceptive Olean ad to run again. It is a decision others should emulate."

The nonprofit CSPI called upon the FTC to stop the deceptive ads and to require the same warning notice in advertising that the FDA requires on the labels of foods made with olestra. The label says, in part, "Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools."

CSPI also announced it has petitioned the FDA not to allow products made with Olean to be called "fat free." The group displayed test tubes filled with olestra extracted from potato chips made with Olean -- a 5.5-ounce bag of Wow chips yielded about nine teaspoons of the fake fat.

"It is completely deceptive to consumers," Jacobson said, "to pretend that chips loaded with this indigestible fat are ‘fat free.’ It also is completely unfair to companies that make baked chips, which really are fat-free." In letters to the FDA, Guiltless Gourmet and other makers of baked chips echoed that complaint.

Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, explained the health risks posed by long-term consumption of Olean.

"Olestra actually has negative nutritional value," said Willett, "because it prevents the body from absorbing carotenoids. Because of evidence that carotenoids protect against chronic diseases, long-term use of olestra in snack foods is likely to cause thousands of cases of cancer and heart disease each year."

Dr. Willett released a letter from 14 prominent professors at Harvard, New York University, University of California at Berkeley, and other institutions urging the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee to recommend that olestra’s approval be revoked.

Several consumers at the press conference warned others away from olestra because of more immediate concerns: olestra made them sick.

Regina McGrath, a 42-year-old woman from Hannastown, Pennsylvania, told reporters that she ate about 12 Doritos Nacho Cheese chips at lunch. "An hour later, I experienced such severe stomach pains that I went to the emergency room, where I was given intravenous morphine. I was once in labor for 21 hours -- this pain was worse. My doctor said that Olean was the culprit. It hit me like the fake fat from hell."

Claire Milford, a 46-year-old Registered Nurse from Indianapolis, experienced yellow stools, severe cramps, and other symptoms the day after she ate Wow chips. She went to the hospital where the doctor attributed the problem to olestra after not finding any other cause.

Terri Crowder, a 24-year-old student from Clinton, Maryland, said, "I suffered watery diarrhea and severe, almost debilitating, cramps several hours after eating about an ounce of Wow Ruffles potato chips. I had to go to bathroom numerous times during the night, at work, and in classes."

All three victims were among the 8,000 who reported symptoms after eating Olean. But, typically, only a tiny fraction of the people who experience adverse effects ever contact a company or health agency. One study showed that as many as 60 percent may be affected if they eat a few ounces of Olean chips every day for several weeks. Other studies involving less frequent consumption find that much smaller percentages are affected.

"It appears," Jacobson said, "that most people will experience at least mild or moderate symptoms if they eat enough Olean often enough. But a small percentage appears to be highly sensitive and suffers severe cramps, diarrhea, or vomiting if they eat just 10 or 20 chips. Those people are temporarily incapacitated and could be at great risk if the symptoms occur while they are driving, swimming, or engaging in other potentially dangerous activities. Consumers shouldn’t have to gamble with their health when they open a bag of chips."

CSPI also noted that, while the FDA allows snack foods made with Olean to be called "fat-free," the same agency requires that animal feed made with olestra include the weight of the olestra as a component of the total fat content.

"If those animals could read and understand the feed label," Jacobson said, "they would know more about what they are really eating than consumers do. That is particularly true if those consumers are misled by the large ‘fat free’ labels on snacks made with olestra.

The press conference closed on a light note. After fielding questions, Jacobson told reporters they were free to take samples from a prominent display -- a mountain of toilet paper rolls wrapped in ban-olestra labels. The display was clearly marked "for emergency use only."

CSPI, a nonprofit health-advocacy organization, was founded in 1971. CSPI is supported largely by the one million subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter. The organization is well known for obtaining nutrition labeling on all packaged foods and for its nutritional studies of restaurant foods.

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