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P&G marks olestra anniversary continuing to fight for its honor

January 23, 1997 GMT

CINCINNATI (AP) _ It seemed like a marketer’s dream: a fat substitute that let consumers eat more snacks without paying in pounds.

But in the year since olestra won government approval, Procter & Gamble Co. has spent millions defending the honor of a product that must carry a label warning consumers it ``may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools.″

A feisty consumer group has targeted olestra _ which eliminates fat and cuts calories _ by running ads and holding briefings for consumers who complain products containing the substitute, including Fat-Free Pringles, made them sick.

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And then there are the jokes.

``When you’re through with the Pringles, you might want to hang on to the can,″ Jay Leno told Tonight Show viewers.

One of the entries in David Letterman’s Top 10 list the day after the Food and Drug Administration approved olestra: ``We can’t tell you exactly how we make it, but we can say this: Ten monkeys go into a room, and only nine come out.″

Procter & Gamble, which spent more than $200 million and 25 years developing the product it markets under the brand name Olean, fought back.

It asked the FDA to rewrite the label, suggesting this phrase: ``Because it is not digested, olestra may cause discomfort or a laxative effect.″

The FDA rejected the idea.

Faced with the mandatory label, the chips went on the test-market. P&G also started an ad campaign to rebut olestra’s most persistent critic, the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

CSPI set up a hot line for complaints and released studies it said proved olestra was harmful.

Olestra gives people diarrhea in far larger numbers than the company acknowledges and should be taken off the market, CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson says.

``CSPI is just wrong about olestra,″ counters P&G spokeswoman Sydney McHugh. ``The facts and the science and the marketplace experience just don’t support any of their allegations.″

P&G’s strategy seems to have worked in the year since the Jan. 24, 1996 approval of olestra by the FDA. Sales are encouraging, marketers say.

But CSPI doesn’t plan to back down.

``It’s been a nose-to-nose battle _ if David’s nose reaches Goliath’s nose,″ Jacobson said. ``Procter & Gamble is fighting back with everything it has.″

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After P&G began test marketing the Pringles in Columbus, Ohio, Alvin Kowalsky, 25, of nearby London, was among about 300 people who complained to the CSPI.

``I think the company is very wrong for even putting something on the shelf like that,″ said Kowalsky, who said he had to go to an emergency room for treatment.

Olestra has its supporters.

Mary Angela Miller, director of the Ohio State University Medical Center’s Department of Nutrition & Dietetics, defended it in the Journal of Women’s Health.

``If olestra fails because olestra-containing snacks do not taste good, are of poor quality or are deemed not to be worth their price, it deserves to fail,″ she wrote.

``But if olestra should fail because consumers are misinformed, the public will lose access to a food substitute that expands the useful range of food choices.″

Dallas-based Frito-Lay test-marketed olestra chips in three Midwestern cities.

``We were encouraged by the results,″ said Frito-Lay spokeswoman Lynn Markley. ``We are considering an expanded test market this year.″

She said consumers have sampled or bought 1.6 million bags of the chips, and repeat business is good.

In Columbus, more than 3 million servings of Fat-Free Pringles have been sold or sampled since September.

P&G is building a factory in Cincinnati to make olestra. Mass production is more than a year away.

``We have signed contracts with about a dozen manufacturers in addition to Frito-Lay,″ Ms. McHugh said.

P&G has not sought approval to use olestra in other foods. But it might be a good idea, one analyst said.

``The thing that has held back fat-free is taste. The stuff tastes awful,″ said Jack Trout, of Trout & Partners, a Greenwich, Conn., marketing consultant. ``This solves a big problem.″