Procter & Gamble, the nation’s largest advertiser, is beginning a massive marketing campaign to sell snack foods made with its new calorie-free fat substitute, olestra (trade name “Olean”). The company’s long-term goal is to get olestra into products ranging from French fries to ice cream and to sell them all nationwide.
If that happens, one can confidently predict that millions of consumers will become ill, with the United States possibly even displacing impoverished nations as the diarrhea capital of the world. For the present, our diarrhea capitals are local: Columbus, Ohio, where P&G is test marketing olestra-laden Fat Free Pringles, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Eau Claire, Wis., and Grand Junction, Colo., where Frito-Lay is testing Max potato and tortilla chips, which also substitute olestra for standard fats.
Does it sound incredible that a respected American corporation would intentionally market a literally sickening ingredient? Unfortunately, it’s true. Clinical tests conducted by P&G itself demonstrated that daily consumption of olestra for eight weeks caused half or more of the test subjects to suffer diarrhea, loose stools, and abdominal cramps.
P&G’s tests also proved that olestra causes something less tangible but possibly more dangerous: interference with the body’s absorption of nutrients called carotenoids. According to medical experts, those nutrient losses might lead to higher rates of cancer and heart disease.
Simply stated, olestra is an unnecessary menace to public health. CSPI’s hotline, 1-888-OLESTRA, has received reports of misery from hundreds of victims in the four test markets. A telephone survey commissioned by CSPI of 500 homes in Frito-Lay’s test markets found that about 15 percent of people who’ve eaten olestra chips (usually just once or twice) suffer sometimes-severe gastrointestinal symptoms. Yet P&G barrels ahead, spending an astonishing (and perhaps desperate) $5 million to $10 million - an amount almost unheard of for a test market - on its Columbus campaign.
Most of P&G’s millions is going to hire eight advertising and public relations agencies and to pay for commercials. A much smaller but more insidious part has been paid to obtain the services and endorsements of well-credentialed and ostensibly neutral doctors, including the former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Louis Sullivan.
P&G has also hired a flock of Columbus dietitians to assuage public concerns and persuade - sometimes badger - colleagues into dropping their opposition to olestra. And it has paid stipends to everyday shoppers, some of whose happy faces adorn the blizzard of ads that say, in effect, Hey, don’t worry about a thing … no fat, tastes great, eat up!
P&G’s propaganda machine tries strenuously to minimize the problems that olestra causes. The company cites uncontrolled studies to “prove” that olestra causes no more problems than conventional chips - while pretending that its own controlled (and damning) studies don’t exist. It says that some natural foods, including whole grains and vegetables, sometimes produce stomach ailments, without acknowledging that those foods provide valuable nutrients and don’t - as olestra does - cause people to be doubled over in pain and to suffer diarrhea for as long as three days.
While the company maintains that olestra is one of the best-tested additives ever, it admits that the largest controlled test on children lasted only seven days and had the children eating the equivalent of only one ounce of olestra potato chips each day. Never mind that kids are voracious consumers of snack foods.
P&G criticizes critics of olestra for being pseudoscientific. But for pseudo-science, little surpasses the astonishing statement, from a “senior scientist” for the company, that olestra-related symptoms may simply be due to “the power of suggestion,” as if the label on every can of Pringles didn’t admit that “Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools.”
How did the FDA ever approve this problem-ridden additive? The FDA’s action was based in part on an “expert” advisory committee that voted 17 to 5 in favor of approval. But at least 9 of the 17 “yeas” were academics who have served as consultants to the food industry. The FDA needs to appoint a new, truly independent commission to review the approval.
Meanwhile, all of us - especially the top executives at P&G - should ponder a larger issue of food safety and corporate ethics. Americans have long been able to buy packaged foods with confidence that they are safe. Now comes a major company willing to market a product it knows will make a substantial number of its customers ill.
What ethical code guides that decision? Will it actually market its product nationally? Procter & Gamble, wake up and regain the public trust.
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