What's New -- CSPI Press Releases

For Release: July 15, 1997

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Olestra 'Snack Attack' Hits Thousands of Hoosiers

Victims Go on Protest March to State Health Department

Four months ago a nonprofit health group predicted that olestra, the new fake fat used in Wow and Pringles chips, would cause cramps and other gastrointestinal symptoms in thousands of Hoosiers. Today the health group released evidence that its prediction was accurate.

At a press conference in Indianapolis, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a telephone survey of 543 Indianapolis adults. The survey found that one third of adults had tried olestra-containing chips. About 7 percent of those consumers said the chips caused diarrhea, cramps, loose stools, or other symptom. In contrast, not one of 351 people associated any adverse effect with conventional chips.

Based on that survey, CSPI estimates that between 18,000 and 54,000 Indianapolis-area consumers experienced symptoms linked to the olestra chips.

The Wow chips, made by Frito-Lay, are being test marketing in central Indiana. Procter & Gamble, the maker of olestra, has been testing its Fat Free Pringles almost statewide.

Dozens of local residents who said they were affected by olestra appeared at the press conference and then marched to the Indiana State Department of Health. They urged the department to warn Hoosiers that olestra could cause great suffering in people of all ages.

"I am very concerned about the short- and long-term health risks associated with olestra. Many of my patients who tried olestra snacks suffered cramps and diarrhea," said Bonnie Ross, a registered dietitian from Indianapolis. "It seems asinine to allow a chemical like olestra to get into our food supply. The ONLY benefit I can see from olestra is big-time profits for P & G."

"I didn't think they'd put something out on the market that could hurt you," said Jeff Fox, a corrections officer from New Castle who suffered severe abdominal cramps. "But I guess I was wrong."

Nancy Sixsmith, an editor from Noblesville who suffered uncomfortable and embarrassing symptoms, said "the Indiana State Department of Health should join CSPI in warning people about the problems associated with eating foods that contain olestra."

Also today, CSPI submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Indiana health department reports of symptoms in 875 people who called the group's toll-free hot line, 1-888-OLESTRA. Those include 678 Hoosiers, 500 of whom live in the Indianapolis area.

Many of the people who called CSPI said they suffered painful stomach cramps, severe diarrhea, vomiting, and "accidents" at home or work. Four people said they went to the emergency room and many others contacted a doctor or nurse. Some people missed work and school. CSPI estimates that hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the Indianapolis area suffered severe symptoms.

Olestra victims also have contacted U.S. Representative Julia Carson (D-IN), who responded by contacting the FDA. She urged "the selection of a new and independent review committee to consider the evidence of olestra's dangers and develop the record which will support a decision to ban Olestra from our food supply." (To read Representative Carson's statement, click here.)

Michael F. Jacobson, CSPI's executive director, said, "Olestra is causing a quiet epidemic of misery. It is shocking that the state health department has refused to warn the public about the problems that the synthetic fat can cause."

"The problems consumers have experienced confirm Procter & Gamble's own studies," said Jacobson. "Those studies proved that the fake fat greatly increases the rates of loose stools, diarrhea, cramps, flatulence, and other symptoms. That's why the FDA is requiring that olestra-containing products bear a notice stating: 'Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools.'"

CSPI's survey found, however, that fewer than half of the consumers saw the FDA-required notice before they bought the chips. Jacobson said, "The FDA caved in to industry pressure by allowing the notice to be printed in small type on the back of packages."

CSPI, which is based in Washington, D.C., urges people who suffer side effects from eating WOW chips to call its toll-free olestra hot-line: 1-888-OLESTRA.

"CSPI can't out-spend industry's ad campaigns," Jacobson said, "but we will work hard to inform consumers about olestra's serious problems. I think that most Hoosiers will be smart enough to choose healthier low-fat snacks, such as delicious -- and perfectly safe -- baked chips."

The evidence that olestra causes adverse effects has spurred more than one hundred doctors and many distinguished scientists to urge the FDA not to approve olestra. Those opponents include the chairman of the Harvard School of Public Health's nutrition department, the former chief of human nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture, and a top researcher at the National Cancer Institute. The American Public Health Association, The Lighthouse, and the National Association for Visually Handicapped also have opposed olestra.

Jacobson added, "Olestra poses a greater long-term danger than cramps and diarrhea. Olestra prevents the body from absorbing fat-soluble carotenoids, such as beta-carotene. Growing evidence indicates that those nutrients protect against cancer, heart disease, and the most common form of blindness that strikes the elderly (macular degeneration). That's why one prominent cancer researcher, Dr. John S. Bertram of the University of Hawaii, told the FDA that olestra "... would constitute a public health time-bomb."

CSPI reiterated its plea to the FDA to repeal its approval of olestra. Until that happens, CSPI asked the FDA to require a prominent, strongly worded warning label. CSPI also has petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to require that all advertisements for olestra and olestra-containing products include the FDA-required notice about side effects.

CSPI, a nonprofit health-advocacy organization, was founded in 1971. CSPI is supported largely by the 900,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter. The organization is well-known for obtaining nutrition labeling on all packaged foods and for its nutritional studies of restaurant foods. In 1996 FDA Commissioner David Kessler presented CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson with the FDA's highest honor, the Commissioner's Special Citation.

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