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.

Blue Apron’s Memorial Day Sale Will Save You $60 On Your First Three Boxes

Scott Eisen/Getty Images
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

If you’ve gone through all the recipes you had bookmarked on your phone and are now on a first-name basis with the folks at the local pizzeria, it might be time to introduce a new wrinkle into your weekly dinner menu. But instead of buying loads of groceries and cookbooks to make your own meal, you can just subscribe to a service like Blue Apron, which will deliver all the ingredients and instructions you need for a unique dinner.

And if you start your subscription before May 26, you can save $20 on each of your first three weekly boxes from the company. That means that whatever plan you choose—two or four meals a week, vegetarian or the Signature plan—you’ll save $60 in total.

With the company’s Signature plan, you’ll get your choice of meat, fish, and Beyond foods, along with options for diabetes-friendly and Weight Watchers-approved dishes. The vegetarian plan loses the meat, but still allows you to choose from a variety of dishes like General Tso's tofu and black bean flautas.

To get your $60 off, head to the Blue Apron website and click “Redeem Offer” at the top of the page to sign up.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

Bo Knows Everything: Remembering Nike's Legendary Bo Jackson Ad Campaign

Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Mike Powell, Allsport/Getty Images

It may have been difficult for Nike to conceive of any athlete being able to do more for its company than Michael Jordan. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Chicago Bulls star was omnipresent, helping turn their Air Jordan line of sneakers into a squeaky chorus in school hallways and gyms around the country. Even better, the company had scored big with “Just Do It,” an advertising slogan introduced in 1988 that became part of the public lexicon.

There was just one issue. In spite of Jordan’s growing popularity and their innovative advertising, Nike was still in second place behind Reebok. No other athlete on their roster could seemingly bridge the gap. Not even their new cross-training shoe endorsed by tennis pro John McEnroe was igniting excitement in the way the company had hoped.

In 1989, two major events changed all of that: An advertising copywriter was struck with inspiration, and two-sport athlete Bo Jackson slammed a first-inning home run during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. The ad man’s idea was to portray Jackson as being able to do just about anything. Jackson went ahead and proved him right.

 

Bo Jackson was an ideal spokesperson for Nike's new line of cross-training sneakers. The Auburn University graduate was making waves as a rare two-sport pro athlete; he was playing baseball for the Kansas City Royals and football for the Los Angeles Raiders. Early commercials featured Jackson sampling other sporting activities like riding a bike. “Now, when’s that Tour de France?” he asked. In another, he dunked a basketball and pondered the potential of “Air Bo.”

At a Portland bar near Nike’s headquarters one evening, Nike vice president of marketing Tom Clarke and Jim Riswold of ad agency Wieden + Kennedy were pondering how best to use Jackson going forward. Clarke wanted to devote the majority of their budget for the cross-trainers to an ad campaign featuring the athlete. The two started lobbing ideas about other people named Bo—Bo Derek, Beau Brummell, Little Bo Peep, and Bo Diddley, among others.

The last one stuck with Riswold. He thought of a phrase—“Bo, you don’t know Diddley”—and went home to sleep on it. When he woke up the next morning, he was able to sketch out an entire commercial premise in minutes. Riswold envisioned a spot in which Jackson would try his hand at other sports, punctuating each with a “Bo Knows” proclamation. Jackson soon realizes the one thing he can’t do is play guitar with Bo Diddley, the legendary musician.

It took longer to shoot the commercial than to conceive of it. The spot was shot over the course of a month, with the crew going to California, Florida, and Kansas to film cameos with other athletes including Jordan, McEnroe, and Wayne Gretzky—all of whom Nike had under personal appearance contracts.

Fearing Jackson might hurt himself trying to skate, the production filmed him from the knees up sliding around in socks at a University of Kansas gymnasium rather than on ice. But not all attempts at caution were successful. When director Joe Pytka grew frustrated that Jackson kept running off-camera and implored him to move in a straight line, Jackson steamrolled both the equipment and Pytka, who had to tend to a bloody nose before continuing.

In portraying any other athlete this way, the campaign may have come off as stretching credulity. But Jackson had already been improving his game in all areas, hitting a 515-foot home run during a spring training win over the Boston Red Sox. In April, he hit .282 and tallied eight home runs. Even when he struck out, he still stood out: Jackson was prone to breaking his bat over his knee in frustration.

 

After Jackson was voted into the 1989 MLB All-Star Game in July, Nike decided the telecast would be the ideal place to debut their Bo Knows campaign. They handed out Bo Knows pennants for fans and even flew Bo Knows signs overhead. Bo Knows appeared in a full-page spot for USA Today. Even by Nike standards, this was big.

There was, of course, a chance Jackson would be in a bat-breaking mood, which might diminish the commercial’s impact. But in the very first inning, Jackson sent one into the stands off pitcher Rick Reuschel. With a little scrambling, Nike was able to get their ad moved up from the fourth inning, where it was originally scheduled to run. In the broadcast booth, announcer Vin Scully and special guest, former president Ronald Reagan, marveled at Jackson’s prowess. Scully reminded viewers that his pro football career was something Jackson once described as a “hobby.”

A Bo Jackson fan is pictured holding up a 'Bo Knows Baseball!' sign at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989
A Bo Jackson fan shows his support at the MLB All-Star Game in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Jackson was named the Most Valuable Player of the game. That summer and into the fall, Bo Knows was quickly moving up the ranks of the most pervasive commercial spots in memory, second only to Jordan’s memorable ads for Nike and McDonald’s. Jackson turned up in sequels, trying his hand at everything from surfing to soccer to cricket. Special effects artists created multiple Bo Jacksons, a seemingly supernatural explanation for why he excelled at everything.

It was a myth, but one rooted in reality. After 92 wins with the Royals as a left-fielder in 1989, Jackson reported for the NFL season that fall as a running back for the Raiders. In one three-game stretch, he ran for over 100 yards each. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in November, Jackson ran 92 yards for a touchdown. He finished the season with 950 rushing yards. That winter, he was named to the Pro Bowl, making him the only athlete to appear in two all-star games for two major North American sports in consecutive seasons.

Nike was staggered by the results of Bo Knows, which helped them leap over Reebok to become the top athletic shoe company. They eventually secured 80 percent of the cross-training shoe market, going from $40 million in sales to $400 million, a feat that executives attributed in large part to Jackson. Bo Knows, bolstered by Jackson’s demonstrated versatility, was the perfect marriage of concept and talent. His stature as a spokesperson rose, and he appeared in spots for AT&T and Mountain Dew Sport, earning a reported $2 million a year for endorsements. A viewer survey named him the most persuasive athlete in advertising. If that weren’t enough, Jackson also appeared in the popular Nintendo Entertainment System game Tecmo Bowl and on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1989.

 

In 1991, Jackson suffered a serious hip injury during a Raiders game, one that permanently derailed his football career. He played three more seasons of baseball with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels before retiring from sports in 1994.

Jackson's relationship with Nike was dissolved soon after, though the company never totally abandoned the concept of athletes wading into new territory. In 2004, a campaign depicted big names sampling other activities. Tennis great Andre Agassi suited up for the Boston Red Sox; cyclist Lance Armstrong was seen boxing; Serena Williams played beach volleyball. The Bo Knows DNA ran throughout.

Jackson still makes periodic references to the campaign, including in advertisements for his Bo Jackson Signature Foods. (“Bo Knows Meat,” the website proclaims.) In 2019, Jackson also appeared in a Sprint commercial that aimed for surrealism, with Jackson holding a mermaid playing a keytar and having a robot intone that “Bo does know” something about cell phone carriers.

The other key Bo—Diddley—never quite understood why the campaign worked. After seeing the commercial, he reportedly said that he was confused because it had nothing to do with shoes.