CSPI Protests Deceptive Labeling And Advertising
Warns Of Health Risks From Fake Fat
- June 10 - The "fat from hell" is how one
consumer described Olean, Procter & Gambles 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
"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
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
FDAs Food Advisory Committee to recommend that olestras 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
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
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 shouldnt 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."
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