More than 2,000 people in previous limited test markets have told P&G or the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) that olestra caused gastrointestinal symptoms in themselves or relatives. At least 18 people experienced such severe symptoms that they went to the hospital, and many others called or went to their doctors. P&G says that all those cases were just coincidences.
Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit CSPI, said, "It must be the biggest coincidence in history that all those people, shortly after eating olestra snacks, experienced exactly the symptoms that P&G's tests proved that olestra causes." CSPI, together with professors at many universities, have criticized olestra ever since its faults were uncovered.
CSPI says that based on earlier surveys about two percent of consumers per eating occasion will experience adverse effects. Based on its findings from test markets, CSPI projects that millions of people will experience any adverse effects and tens or hundreds of thousands will experience severe symptoms.
Mark Brown, CSPI's director of toxicology, said, "From a public health perspective, it is crazy to allow into the food supply an additive that will almost certainly cause an enormous amount of pain and discomfort."
CSPI maintains a toll-free hot line -- 1-888-OLESTRA -- for consumers to call if they believe that olestra made them sick. CSPI provides the information on a confidential basis to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Olestra's more serious long-term problem is that it inhibits the body's absorption of carotenoids -- fat-soluble nutrients that most experts believe protect consumers from heart disease and cancer. Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Dr. Meir Stampfer, an epidemiologist in that department, have told the FDA that they estimate that widespread use of olestra in snack foods alone could cause several thousands deaths annually.
Because of olestra's effects on carotenoids, Dr. Tim Byers, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, said, "Olestra-containing products should come with a warning label stating: 'Do not eat this product with food.'"
The FDA requires P&G to add vitamins A, D, E, and K to olestra, but not alpha- and beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and other carotenoids.
In recent months, Procter & Gamble spokespersons have been trying feverishly to persuade journalists and the public that two new studies have shown that olestra doesn't cause any problems. The company says that the rates of gastrointestinal problems were about the same in people who ate olestra chips or regular chips.
"Hogwash and junk science," scoffed Jacobson. "Procter & Gamble's recent studies were designed in such a way as to miss what its own previous studies showed: that olestra causes diarrhea, loose stools, cramps, and other gastrointestinal symptoms."
CSPI toxicologist Mark Brown said, "Given the high background rates of symptoms, it was predictable even before the studies were begun that one- or two-time consumption of olestra would not have caused enough problems to be detected. In an earlier, much better P&G study that retested people who suspected that olestra caused them gastrointestinal symptoms, olestra was proven to cause severe diarrhea, according to an FDA medical officer."
If the FDA grants P&G's wish to use olestra in shortening, ice cream, and many other foods, all the problems olestra causes would be proportionately greater, warns CSPI.
The FDA requires products containing the controversial additive to bear a label notice stating "Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools." Though that notice is printed in small type on the back of labels, Procter & Gamble and Frito-Lay have urged the FDA to eliminate the notice on small packages and make it even less visible on other packages.
While CSPI opposes olestra, it does not oppose low-fat snacks or any other fat substitute. CSPI advises people who want low-fat snacks simply to buy any of the many brands of baked potato chips, tortilla chips, and crackers. "Not only are they delicious and cheaper than olestra snacks," said Jacobson, "they are perfectly safe."
CSPI has petitioned the FDA to rescind its approval of olestra and the Federal Trade Commission to require the notice about symptoms to appear in all advertising for olestra and olestra-containing products. The FDA plans to have an advisory committee review the safety of olestra next July.
CSPI is a nonprofit health-advocacy organization that focuses on nutrition and food safety. It is based in Washington, D.C., and is supported largely by the one million members and subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter.