I remember back in 1998, sitting in my school cafeteria, where a table was set up introducing students to a new product. WOW potato chips were fat free How could this even happen? Potato chips were long regarded as the junkiest of junk food – but now here was a version that was fat and calorie-free? This appeared to be a major breakthrough in nutrition and in fighting obesity, too.
But instead, WOW chips were off the market within a few years. What happened?
According to the Olean website – the brand-name of Olestra developed by Procter and Gamble – the product is a "safe, FDA-approved, zero-calorie fat substitute used in low-fat snacks and baked goods." Referring to the nation's obesity epidemic, the product is recommended to help you "live a healthier lifestyle, while still enjoying the foods you love."
In reality, it is a zero-calorie fat substitute used in place of cooking oils, shortening and butter in reduced and lower-fat foods. It is made from vegetable oil, which is processed to look, cook and taste like any other oil, but that is not digested – and therefore not absorbed – by the body.
Sounds pretty amazing, right?
There was just one problem: products containing Olean, including WOW chips, had to carry an FDA warning: "Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E and K have been added."
The FDA mandated this label accompany any products containing olestra on January 24, 1996 upon approval of the chemical.
Prior to Olestra being introduced to the public, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Procter and Gamble submitted reports to the FDA of adverse reactions, which referred to people who suffered from severe diarrhea, fecal incontinence or adnominal cramps within hours of eating the chips.
Despite the public health concerns, in the spring of 1998, Procter and Gamble began nationwide marketing of WOW brand chips for some of its subsidies, including Fritos, Pringles, Doritos, and Wheat Thins, to name a few. It invested millions of dollars in advertising campaigns and even hired “experts” to defend the products, including two former secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the former president of the American Dietetic Association.
However, more than 18,000 adverse reaction reports were submitted to the FDA. Combined with the FDA warning scaring some people away, consumers began to turn their backs on what was supposed to be a miracle product. In the first year of availability, sales for WOW chips totaled $400 million. By 2000, these figures had been cut in half. By 2002, products containing olestra were effectively dead in the market, leading Procter and Gamble to sell its Olestra production facilities.
The case of WOW chips exemplifies two success stories. First, it is an example of the FDA working effectively to warn consumers of a potentially dangerous product, despite the lobbying efforts to the contrary. Second, it is the story of consumer revolt that can provide lessons for the future.
While government mandates have been proposed to limit the size of soft drinks, the Olestra story is an example of how consumer behavior can lead to a change without government intrervention. If the public rejects a product, no matter what promises are made, it’s not likely to succeed.
That’s what happened with WOW chips.
Center for Science in the Public Interest. (n.d.). "The Facts About Olestra." A Brief History of Olestra. Retrieved from http://www.cspinet.org/olestra/history.html.