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December 22, 1998

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Fake-fat Olestra Sickens Thousands

15,000 Cases Makes Olestra Most-Complained-About Additive Ever

More than 15,000 consumers have filedcomplaints saying that olestra, the indigestible fat substitute used in Wow snack chips and Fat Free Pringles, has caused problems ranging from gas to bloody stools to cramps so severe that they had to go to the emergency room. Today, the Center for Science in thePublic Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit health group, provided the FDA adverse-reactionreports from 1,080 people ranging in age from 2 to 82. The new reports add to the 1,167complaints previously submitted by CSPI and 13,317 reports submitted by Procter andGamble, which markets olestra under the Olean brand name. According to CSPI, surveyresearch shows that those reports represent only a small fraction of the people actuallyaffected by olestra.

More than 100 people in CSPI’s latest submission of adverse-reaction reportssought medical attention. Forty people went to the emergency room, where several weretreated for dehydration. In some cases, doctors labeled olestra the cause of the symptoms.

Victims reported that olestra’s side effects caused them problems ranging frommild inconvenience to serious safety risks. Olestra made some people soil their clothingat work or school, ruin their vacations, miss work, leave young children unattended, andvomit while driving. Two flight attendants and a military pilot said olestra preventedthem from flying.

A 70-year-old Pennsylvania woman ate about an ounce of Lay’s Wow chips. Four hours later she experienced intense abdominal cramps that forced her into a fetal position for hours. She went to the emergency room and was prescribed drugs to relieve her cramps.

A 4-year-old New Hampshire boy ate a handful of chips and was awakened that night with severely painful stomach cramps.

A 52-year-old teacher in North Carolina who had eaten two ounces of Wow chips per day was at school where she experienced such severe cramps and diarrhea that she had to run from her classroom to get to the bathroom in time.

In a letter to FDA commissioner Jane Henney, Michael F. Jacobson, executive director ofCSPI, urged the agency to ban olestra or, at the very least, to require a prominentwarning label on the fronts of packages stating that olestra can cause severe diarrhea orcramps. He urged Henney to "protect infants, children, adults, and seniors from thepain, embarrassment, and inconvenience that olestra is causing on a massive scale."

Jacobson also urged consumers, "Don’t take a chance with your friends orloved ones’ stomachs by serving Fat Free Pringles or WOW chips at holiday parties.And if Santa leaves fake-fat chips in your stocking, give them back."

The FDA and Procter and Gamble have maintained that there is no proof that olestracaused the symptoms reported. But CSPI’s Jacobson retorted that clinical studiessubmitted to the FDA by Procter and Gamble proved that olestra can cause severegastrointestinal symptoms.

"Severe side effects might be acceptable from a cancer drug, but they arecompletely unacceptable from a food additive consumed by millions of people. Consumersshouldn’t have to play Russian roulette with their health when they eat a few potatochips," said Jacobson.

Dr. Leo Galland, an internal-medicine specialist in New York City who testified at anFDA advisory-committee meeting on olestra, said, "Olestra has had its test market onthe American public, and it clearly flunked the test. The FDA should ban olestra before itcauses even more misery."

CSPI received most of the adverse-reaction reports from its Internet web site,www.cspinet.org/olestraform. The rest came in on CSPI’s toll-free line,1-888-OLESTRA. Eighty percent of the people said they had eaten Frito-Lay’s WOWchips, the rest had eaten Procter and Gamble’s Fat Free Pringles.

While olestra’s adverse reactions have piled up, olestra proponents have pushedthe FDA to downplay or remove the label notice that states "Olestra may causeabdominal cramping and loose stools."

Meanwhile, CSPI has asked the Federal Trade Commission to require a health warning inads for olestra-containing products. Earlier this year, the Council of Better BusinessBureaus found that certain Olean ads were misleading because they implied that olestra isa natural substance and that it looks like an ordinary vegetable oil.