May Cause Anal Leakage: The Olestra Fat-Free Snack Controversy of the 1990s

Consumers could go through bags of Frito-Lay's fat-free chips. Then the bag would go right through them.
Consumers could go through bags of Frito-Lay's fat-free chips. Then the bag would go right through them.
John T. Barr, Getty Images

When Procter & Gamble began market-testing a fat-free version of their popular Pringles snack in late 1996, Pringles brand manager Casey Keller called their attempt to revolutionize the food industry with the calorie-conscious chips “the number-one unmet consumer need” of the moment.

The chip, which had zero grams of fat and only half the calories of conventional Pringles, was made possible by Procter & Gamble’s olestra, a synthetic fat molecule marketed under the brand name Olean. Because it was too large to be absorbed by the intestine, it passed through the digestive tract—a little too quickly, as it turned out.

Olestra, which was found in Pringles and later in Frito-Lay products like Ruffles and Doritos, was burdened by a nagging problem. The miraculous fat molecule gave a percentage of consumers stomach cramps, loose bowel movements, and diarrhea. It also led to the coining of phrases not normally associated with snack foods, like “fecal urgency” and “anal leakage.”

A 25-Year-Long Journey

Olestra’s origins date back to 1968, when Procter and Gamble researchers were investigating fats that premature infants might be able to tolerate more easily. Over time, they found that attaching an increased number of fatty acids to the sorbitol molecule rendered the fats unable to pass through the mucus membrane of the intestine and were therefore totally indigestible.

Because sorbitol was expensive, researchers substituted sucrose and combined it with triglycerides. With this “fake” fat derived from cottonseed and soybean oils, they seemed to have discovered the holy grail of satiety: a greasy additive that provided flavor with zero calories, zero fat, and zero cholesterol.

The development process took 15 years. It took another 10 years for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve olestra for the so-called savory food category: potato chips, pretzels, and other salty snacks—but there were a few wrinkles. For one, olestra appeared to affect how the body absorbed vitamins A, E, D, and K. It also impacted dietary carotenoids, which may help the body ward off cancer and heart disease. The FDA insisted snacks made with olestra be supplemented with vitamins in order to offset any imbalance that ingestion might cause. The agency also mandated a package warning about abdominal cramping and loose stools, an observed side effect of olestra consumption.

Procter & Gamble made a minor stir about the label—after all, it can be difficult to market food with a warning that it might give you explosive diarrhea—but was otherwise pleased. After 25 years and an estimated $200 million in development costs, olestra was finally ready for store shelves.

Procter & Gamble started with Pringles, test marketing a fat-free version of the baked chips in Ohio in 1996. As the company was prepared to sell the ingredient to other snack companies, Frito-Lay began experimenting with it in Lay's, Ruffles, Tostitos, and Doritos that same year. Early word was encouraging, and all products went on to a national rollout in 1998.

Something's stirring

For a public weaned on the idea that dietary fats were bad, olestra caused a huge stir. Frito-Lay, which marketed the chips under the brand name Wow!, pushed the idea that the chips had just 75 calories per serving, half the calories of the regular recipe, and no fat instead of the 10 grams typical of chips. That the snacks could conceivably create bathroom emergencies was relegated to late-night talk show jokes. Procter & Gamble largely dismissed the claims, comparing the potential gastrointestinal distress of olestra to eating beans or broccoli.

But broccoli had never been demonstrated to cause an orange-yellow liquid to seep out of one’s rear end. The FDA and Procter & Gamble were inundated with 16,700 complaints from consumers that products made with olestra were giving them problems from flatulence to stained underwear. A meeting of Washington’s Center for Science in the Public Interest, which had criticized Procter & Gamble for hyping olestra, featured video testimony of people afflicted by the molecule. One claimed the cramps of snacking were comparable to the early stages of labor.

Other experiences with olestra were said to include the passing of orange-yellow “globules” of oil as well as difficulty wiping. The Center even shared a study commissioned by Frito-Lay which was meant to be confidential that demonstrated “anal oil leakage” was experienced by 3 to 9 percent of study subjects. “Underwear spotting” was present in 5 percent. A variety of gastrointestinal issues were observed in 7 percent.

The potential for leakage aside, olestra overcame much of its bad publicity. Frito-Lay sold $347 million in Wow! chips in 1998 alone. The fat-free Pringles were good for $100 million that same year. It appeared that consumers were sufficiently enticed by a lower-calorie option that they wanted to see how olestra would affect them first-hand.

High hopes and loose stool

It’s impossible to know what percentage of consumers experienced adverse effects. But it’s not hard to see why it could have proven so problematic. Unlike the practical serving sizes eaten in studies, consumers tend to binge on chips, devouring a bag at a time or in conjunction with other food. While Procter & Gamble admonished that chips were snacks, it was hard to dissuade people from seeing a bag of chips with half the calories and just eating the entire thing. Even Procter & Gamble admitted that gorging could give you loose stools and cramping.

Procter & Gamble had high hopes for olestra, projecting $1 billion in sales in 2000 and eventually an entire line of olestra-infused goods like salad dressings and desserts. But two years after its explosively profitable debut, sales were just half that, and only a few other companies like Utz and Herr’s used olestra in their products. Even after the FDA removed the label warning requirement in 2003, consumers weren’t finding runny stool all that appetizing.

Frito-Lay renamed their Wow! chips to Ruffles Light and Doritos Light in 2004. In 2009, Procter & Gamble made olestra an additive in eco-friendly paints and lubricants. Some foods are still made with olestra, though it’s no longer the industry disruptor that the company had hoped for.

Speaking of its potential in 1998, Procter & Gamble's then-chairman and chief executive John E. Pepper, Jr. believed that olestra could soon take a place of prominence among other Procter & Gamble products, like Pampers diapers. He did not mention whether he expected sales of the former would help sales of the latter.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

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Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Sauteuse 3.5 Quarts; $180 (save $120)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75) 

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10) 

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- Fairywill Electric Toothbrush with Four Brush Heads; $19 (save $9)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games

Nintendo

- Legend of Zelda Link's Awakening for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Minecraft Dungeons Hero Edition for Nintendo Switch; $20 (save $10)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

Days Gone for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- Apple MacBook Air 13 inches with 256 GB; $899 (save $100)

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250) 

- Samsung Chromebook 4 Chrome OS 11.6 inches with 32 GB; $210 (save $20) 

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8 inches with 32 GB; $100 (save $50)

Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $179 (save $20) 

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $199 (save $50)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

- All-New Amazon Echo Dot with Clock and Alexa (4th Gen); $39 (save $21)

- MACTREM LED Ring Light 6" with Tripod Stand; $16 (save $3)

- Anker Soundcore Upgraded Bluetooth Speaker; $22 (save $8)

- Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote; $28 (save $12)

Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

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Blubber Boom: Reliving the Disastrous Tale of Oregon's Exploding Whale—50 Years Later

Oregon came up with a combustible solution for their dead whale problem.
Oregon came up with a combustible solution for their dead whale problem.
Haliep/iStock via Getty Images (Whale) // revenaif/iStock via Getty Images (Explosion)

The 75 or so people who had gathered on the shore just south of Florence, Oregon, on November 12, 1970 stood at a safe distance and waited for the dynamite to go off. The explosives had been buried under the landward side of a 45-foot-long, 8-ton sperm whale. The mammal would feel nothing when it exploded; it had washed ashore several days before and was long dead.

Its status as a non-living organism was, in fact, the source of the problem. The whale had begun to emit a putrefying stench that repulsed beachgoers. It simply could not remain in place. Its fate was left up to the Oregon State Highway Department, which had no experience relocating whale carcasses and decided to treat it as they would a massive boulder that needed to be removed.

The issue was that this was no boulder. It was a whale. And no one was sure exactly how much dynamite it would take to reduce it to bite-sized pieces of blubber that seagulls and other scavengers would eat. To be on the safe side, 20 cases—or approximately one half-ton—of explosives were used. What happened next is something Florence locals still talk about nearly 50 years later.

 

It’s not always clear why whales strand themselves on land. Sometimes, an injury or illness weakens them to the point they can no longer swim, so they simply wash ashore. Orca whales might chase prey and then find themselves in shallow water—and unable to get back to the open ocean.

A beached sperm whale.Ablestock.com/iStock via Getty Images

However the whale near Florence found itself on the beach, it quickly began to make a posthumous impression. Visitors’ curiosity soon gave way to repulsion as the whale decomposed. Because the beach in Lane County was a public right of way, and nearby roads had a speed limit of 25 miles per hour to observe, the task of dealing with the whale was left up to George Thornton, the assistant district highway engineer of the Oregon State Highway Department, and his team.

It had been a while since a whale had washed ashore in the area, and no one knew exactly how best to deal with it—though various solutions were proposed. One idea was to simply bury the whale in the sand in an oceanside grave, but there were concerns the incoming tide might cause it to resurface. Another suggestion was to cut up the corpse, but there were no volunteers for what would amount to an incredibly unpleasant and time-consuming job hacking away at the blubber. Burning it was also impractical.

That left the seemingly rational option of blowing it up, which dead whales sometimes do naturally; the build-up of gases like ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and sulfide can result in a gory burst of guts spewing forth. But Thornton needed a more potent blast. He consulted with Navy munitions experts who theorized that, with an explosion, the whale would be reduced to chunks that would head toward the Pacific Ocean. Any lingering pieces could be retrieved by workers later.

Local news station KATU sent reporter Paul Linnman and photojournalist Doug Brazil to the scene via helicopter to cover the event. The two arrived and began filming a segment that included an interview with Thornton and a dispatch from Linnman with an enormous dead whale in the background.

 

At 3:30 p.m., spectators and the reporters were asked to move back roughly a quarter-mile away. At 3:45 p.m., Thornton ordered the explosives to be detonated. The scene was captured by the KATU team.

At first, locals cheered the spectacle, which resembled a building demolition. But cheers soon gave way to panic as it became apparent that the half-ton of dynamite had been insufficient to atomize the whale. Large chunks of blubber sailed over their heads and landed with a thud at their feet. Smaller pieces pelted their bodies. The smell of putrid whale oil engulfed the scene. In a spectacular denouement, a giant piece of whale at least 3 square feet in size landed directly on a brand-new Cadillac, smashing the top and blowing out the windows. The vehicle's owner, Walter F. Umenhofer, had wanted to meet a business partner at the detonation ceremony.

Incredibly, no one was injured. But as locals beat a retreat, it became obvious that further action would have to be taken. A large portion of the whale remained; it was eventually moved using a bulldozer and buried on the beach. Smaller bits of blubber were collected and either discarded or covered in sand. Seagulls that had been expected to feast on the remains were scared off by the explosion and remained wary of the area for some time.

For years, Thornton refused to discuss the incident, slightly bashful about the consequences of attempting to blow up a whale. Later, when the footage was circulated online, some people thought it was a hoax. Today, locals celebrate the anniversary by dressing as various whale parts and then running around that very same beach. Just this month, Florence unveiled a new park to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the incident: Exploding Whale Memorial Park.

When 41 sperm whales beached themselves near the same area in 1979, no dynamite was used; they were instead buried in the sand. As for the Cadillac: The state of Oregon reimbursed Umenhofer for the car. His son, Kelly, who was 14 at the time and went with his father to the beach, would later recall that the car had been bought at Old’s Dunham Cadillac, a dealership that promised buyers—prophetically, it turns out—that they would get “a whale of a deal.”