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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Overexposed: A History of Fotomat

Fotomat locations promised speedy photo processing in the 1970s.
Fotomat locations promised speedy photo processing in the 1970s.
George, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Like the Golden Arches of McDonald’s that came before it, the familiar gold and pyramid-shaped roofs of Fotomat locations acted as a beacon. Instead of hamburgers, Fotomat was in the photography business, offering tiny huts situated in shopping plaza parking lots that were staffed by just one employee. Men were dubbed Fotomacs. Women were known as Fotomates, and management required them to wear short-shorts, or “hot pants,” in a nod to the strategy used for flight attendants at Pacific Southwest Airlines.

Cars pulled up to the Fotomat location and dropped off film they wanted processed. After being shuttled via courier to a local photo lab, it would be ready for pick-up the following day. And aside from selling film and a foray into renting videocassette tapes, this was all Fotomat did.

The idea, which was originally made popular by wealthy aviator Preston Fleet, was almost deceptively simple in concept and execution. At the height of Fotomat’s success in the 1970s and early 1980s, there were more than 4000 of the tiny kiosks located across the United States and Canada. But even with extremely low overhead—the little huts didn’t even have bathrooms—and a widespread love of photography, Fotomat fell victim to its own success. Its legacy even grew to include a former company president who became a federal fugitive from justice.

 

In the 1960s, Americans were fond of Kodak Instamatic cameras and film. People submitted the familiar yellow spools full of images from weddings, birthdays, trips, and other social events to photo processing labs, which might take days to return prints.

That’s where Preston Fleet saw opportunity. Fleet was a wealthy aviation enthusiast. His father, Reuben Fleet, had founded the Consolidated Aircraft Company—later known as Convair—which manufactured aircraft for World War II. Born in Buffalo, New York, Fleet moved with his family when the airplane business was relocated to San Diego. On the West Coast, he met Clifford Graham, an entrepreneur well-known in La Jolla, California, for his multiple business pursuits. Graham also had a reputation for carrying a gun and leading investors astray with questionable business practices.

Fotomat, however, was no hustle. The concept of a kiosk where people could easily drop off and pick up film that would be ready overnight originated in Florida, where Charles Brown opened the first location in 1965. After buying Brown's stock shares and arranging for a royalty, Fleet and Graham founded the Fotomat Corporation in 1967, with Graham president and Fleet vice-president. The concept grew quickly, boasting 1800 sites in its first 18 months of operation. Owing to its color scheme, people often thought Kodak operated the business, which led to complaints from Kodak as well as lawsuits. (Fotomat changed its design in 1970 to avoid confusion.)

While it was relatively easy to slot in a Fotomat hut in a parking lot, a business operating as an island surrounded by traffic had its problems. Remembering an old Fotomat in New Dorp on Staten Island, residents on Facebook recalled plowing into the kiosk or backing into it. (Most notably, terrorists destroy a Fotomat lookalike hut in the Twin Pines Mall lot in 1985’s Back to the Future.)

There was also the matter of bathrooms: They weren’t any. Employees often made arrangements to duck into local supermarkets or other stores when nature demanded it.

Hot pants and a lack of lavatories aside, Fotomat performed so well that Fleet and Graham decided to take it public in 1969, with each man holding stock worth $60 million at one point. But Graham’s controversial business practices made him a short-timer. In 1971, he was ousted from Fotomat over allegations he was misusing funds for his own personal gain, including his political interests—Graham was a supporter of both Richard Nixon and football player-turned-congressman Jack Kemp, who became an assistant to the president in the Fotomat corporation and referred football pros to become franchisees.

 

By the early 1980s, Fotomat—now minus Fleet, who had sold off his shares, and Graham—had opened over 4000 locations. That was both impressive and problematic. Fotomat had far overextended itself, sometimes opening kiosks so close to one another it cannibalized sales. There was also a growing number of pharmacies and grocery stores offering photo development services.

Fotomat locations were usually found in parking lots.David Prasad, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The real death blow for Fotomat, however, wasn’t over-expansion. It was the emergence of the one-hour minilab.

For an investment of $50,000 to $100,000, existing stores could install labs that could process photos in as little as one hour while customers shopped. Minilabs exploded from just 600 locations in 1980 to 14,700 by 1988. And since film never left the sites, it was less likely to get lost. It decimated Fotomat and its copycat businesses, with Fotomat moving from an impressive 18 percent market share in the photo processing industry to just 2 percent by 1988.

The company tried to recalibrate, converting home movies to videotape and even offering VHS rental during the VCR boom of the 1980s, but it wasn’t successful. Mass layoffs and closures followed. (Minilabs would have their own reckoning, both due to the rise of 35mm photography and digital photography.) In 1990, Fotomat was down to just 800 locations.

Fleet, who had exited Fotomat years prior—the company had been sold to Konica—was no worse for the wear. Prior to his death in 1995, he authored a book, Hue and Cry, which called into question the authenticity of works attributed to William Shakespeare. He was a founding director of the San Diego Aerospace Museum in 1963. He also helped popularize Omnimax, an immersive theater experience owned by Imax, installing a screen at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Space Museum in San Diego in 1973.

Graham’s future after Fotomat was far more colorful. Promoting a bogus gold mining operation he named Au Magnetics, he promised he could turn sand into gold. Instead, he was accused of fleecing investors. When a federal grand jury handed down an indictment that included charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion in 1986, Graham was nowhere to be found. Nor would he ever be located. Associates speculate he either successfully eluded authorities or was possibly killed by an investor who was unhappy with losing money.

As for the Fotomat locations themselves: Following the company’s collapse, many were repurposed into other businesses. Some became coffee shops; others morphed into watch repair kiosks, locksmith huts, windshield wiper dealers, or tailors. Presumably, none of the owners who took over mandated their employees wear hot pants.