The Potato Chip That Destroyed The Bowels Of America
There's a very old and common fictional trope where someone gets their deepest desire, but with ironic consequences. For example, a genie might grant a humble fisherman three wishes, but the wishes all make him shit himself. Or a harassed bookworm finally gets some peace and quiet to read after a nuclear explosion, but then he shits himself so hard his glasses break. Well, back in the '90s, Americans were more obsessed with dieting and weight loss than ever. So the nation rejoiced when the FDA announced they had approved a miraculous new fat substitute which could be used to produce low-fat versions of deliciously unhealthy foods like potato chips.
It was called Olestra, and oh boy was there some bad news about that.
Before long a solid percentage of Americans could no longer look their dry cleaner in the eye, while most gas stations just tossed a grenade into the bathroom at the end of the day and rebuilt in the morning. Meanwhile, the FDA was inundated with thousands of hilariously dry formal complaints, like the time a "37-year-old woman reported severe diarrhea, fecal urgency, and abdominal cramps after eating Original and Sour Cream and Onion Fat Free Pringles. She was driving when the pain started and could not get off the road in time to get to the bathroom before the diarrhea began. She had 5 children in her van who were frightened." And in fairness most 10-year-olds would indeed be a little alarmed to observe a parent suddenly crap their pants so hard the car's airbag goes off.
Olestra had actually been invented back in the 1960s, by some well-meaning Procter & Gamble researchers trying to find a way to quickly deliver fat to underweight babies. They screwed this up so badly that they actually invented a new kind of fat that the human body was completely incapable of absorbing. The disappointed researchers were surprised to pull open the lab door just moments later to find the entire Procter & Gamble board wearing gold suits and dollar-sign glasses, performing an elaborately choreographed rendition of Barrett Strong's "Money." Because if the human body couldn't absorb it, then humans could theoretically eat a whole bunch of fatty foods without gaining weight. And that's the goddamn American dream baby.
Sadly, this glorious vision was held up by the grey-souled communists at the FDA, who were concerned about Olestra for three reasons. Firstly, they hated fun. Secondly, they worried that a "fat free" label would encourage the average American to hork down an entire wheelbarrow of junk food every morning, even though it was still very bad for you. And thirdly, a small percentage of test subjects reported that trying to pass undigested globules of fat was causing some mildly embarrassing problems in the bathroom, and some very embarrassing problems out of it.
But the potential profits were too great and Procter & Gamble stuck with it until 1996, when the FDA finally gave permission for Olestra to be used as an ingredient in "savory snacks." However, they insisted on one condition -- the new products all had to have a prominent label warning that Olestra could cause abdominal cramping, fecal incontinence and loose stools. And stools are like timberwolves: certainly an important part of the ecosystem, but you really don't want a loose one appearing when you put out a bowl of chips at a cocktail party. But Procter & Gamble were convinced they had a winning product. And the crazy thing is, they were initially right.
In 1998, Frito-Lay used Olestra to launch their WOW! line of chips, including WOW! Doritos, WOW! Lays, WOW! Ruffles and WOW! Tostitos (thus marking the first time in history "wow" and "Tostitos" were together in the same sentence). These were marketed as low-fat alternatives to regular chips and every one of them had a big "may cause loose stools" warning label slapped right on the packaging. And they freaking flew off the shelves. Sales topped $340 million in the first year. People just could not get enough of the shit chips -- which seems insane now. Seriously, we like diet soda as much as anyone, but we'd probably stop buying it if there was an old man ringing a bell and shouting "Beware! Bewaaaare!" in front of every vending machine.
(As a thought experiment, can you imagine how long these chips would stay on the shelves in the age of Instagram and Tiktok? Entire G.I. wards would be filled to the brim with the howling, evacuating victims of "The Sack Of WOW! Challenge.")
They were called "WOW" because that's what the firefighters said when they broke down the door of the research lab bathroom.
But soon rumbles of discontent were heard across the nation. Literally tens of thousands of people were going about their daily business when they suddenly found themselves going about their daily business. Frito-Lay customers reported orange oily discharge making an unwelcome appearance in their lives. Others accused Procter & Gamble of conspiring to boost their toilet paper brands, since it now took an entire roll just to break through the layer of grease left by every trip to the bathroom. Seriously, we're not trying to be disgusting here, but this was an actual problem facing the nation. Nobody in the country trusted a fart until like Y2K.
Before long, the FDA had received over 20,000 complaints about Olestra, more than every other food additive in history combined. A report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which examined a number of complaints, described them as "grisly" and they were 100 percent right. Like, seriously, we won't hold it against you if you want to go read an article about the Donner Party or something. According to the CSPI, "the victims' cases...are brimming with reports of diarrhea, fecal incontinence, cramping, bleeding, and yellow-orange oil in toilet bowls and in underwear. Several of the victims required hospitalization." Can you imagine having to join a support group for the victims of Ruffles?
The CSPI also noted that "victims reported fecal incontinence while driving, shopping, exercising, dining out, or at other inconvenient or potentially dangerous times." Pity the poor kid who found the worst possible way to fail his driving test, but at least he had it better than all the gym managers who had to don a gas mask, turn the treadmill back on and jog along with a Swiffer. The report continued with the devastating revelation that "one groomsman reported fainting and vomiting at a wedding after eating Fat Free Pringles." Meanwhile, "one mother said her son soiled four sets of clothing in three hours."
Remember, Olestra didn't remove fat from food, it just prevented your body from absorbing it. So all that fat would just shoot through you and come straight out the other end. P&G didn't think this would be a problem, since their customers would surely eat a sensible serving of chips and then stop, producing a hardly noticeable effect. The FDA apparently agreed, since their approval of the product was based on the assumption that the average consumer would eat less than 7 grams of Olestra per day. Which works out to roughly 8 potato chips. Eight chips! Nobody in history has ever stopped eating after eight chips. If you offered somebody a small bag of chips and they said "no, I'll have eight individual ones" you'd peg them instantly as a body-snatcher from the sadness dimension. If McDonald's replaced their patties with loose thumbtacks and trout meat, they'd still have a better understanding of their customer base.
In their defense, Procter & Gamble pointed out that only a certain percentage of customers experienced the negative effects of Olestra (that unfortunate group reached up to 30% in some studies). Which is true, although "look, some of you guys are screwed," is an unusual marketing tactic. It was like if M&Ms announced a slightly lower-calorie formula, but also hid an extra-strength Dulcolax inside one candy in every bag. "Roll the dice you cowards" might work as Taco Bell's slogan, but nobody's been crying out for its adoption by the rest of the market.
Speaking of Taco Bell, P&G's other reassuring argument about Olestra was that some people also got intestinal distress from foods like "beans, bran and broccoli." Which is also true, but again really doesn't take human behavior into account. Very few people go out for a lovely picnic, spread out a comfy blanket, then crack open a couple cans of uncooked black beans. If you have problems digesting broccoli, you most likely figure that out during childhood, rather than impulse buying a head and eating it on the bus before your big job interview. No nightclub ever had to replace its glass floor because an entire bachelor party ate a big bag of bran with their pre-club vodkas.
Not that Frito-Lay would have been too alarmed, since they assured a woman who called to complain about "severe loose stools, fecal urgency, gas, and...stools with yellow-orange oil in them" that this was "normal and there was no need for alarm." Can you imagine being the poor Frito-Lay employee who had to pick up the phone every day to people screaming "oh god it's on the ceiling!" and just go "well, that's to be expected after your ninth chip sir." Meanwhile, the complaints only got worse. One lady claimed her diarrhea was so bad that her anus "turned inside out." Which is certainly not ideal. Nobody's having a pleasant morning after that.
Now, in fairness to P&G, a lot of this was clearly down to the power of suggestion. The fact that Olestra products were required to have a big "Warning: Your Ass May Turn Into The Bellagio Fountains At Any Moment" label on every bag caused customers to associate any intestinal discomfort with Olestra, whether it was caused by the product or not. Plenty of people spent their day fighting vultures off of roadkill, then ate a single Pringle they found in a hospital dumpster and marched straight over to Frito-Lay headquarters to complain about their stomach problems. And again, many people seem to have taken the "fat free" branding as an excuse to eat chips from morning to evening, which has never been recommended by the world's top bowel experts.
In fact, the FDA eventually decided to see if ignoring the problem would make it go away and removed the prominent warning label in 2003. But by that point the ship had sailed. Studies sponsored by P&G itself repeatedly found a significantly higher level of gastrointestinal problems among people who consumed Olestra, especially if they really pigged out and ate more than the eight chips recommended by the FDA. One study found up to 9 percent of customers experienced "anal oil leakage" and no product can survive a reputation for subjecting people to an Exxon Valdez in their underpants. Between 1998 and 2000, sales of Olestra products halved and the downward trend showed no signs of stopping until the WOW! brand was discontinued in 2004.
Oh no, all these downhome country folk must have been devastated!
But while Olestra never became the global sensation Procter & Gamble anticipated, it never exactly went away either. Under the Olean brand name you can still find it in Pringles Light and Lays Light potato chips in the US (it's banned in the European Union and many other international markets). There have even been some recent studies suggesting that Pringles with Olestra can help remove carcinogenic chemicals called PCBs from your body (presumably in the same way they help remove everything else from your body). On the other hand, P&G seems to see Olestra's future to be more as a paint additive, which is not exactly a huge vote of confidence in a food ingredient, although it might at least help repair some of the damage done to bathrooms in the late '90s.
In retrospect, the Olestra era looks like the ultimate test of just how much the American consumer was willing to put up with. There are multiple successful restaurant chains that are just microwave expired Hungry Man dinners, cheese is just compacted runoff from soap factories, and the average chicken has to be hosed down with chlorine to make sure all of its heads are dead. But back in the '90s, corporate America finally went too far. It turns out that if a product literally has a big label saying that it will make you shit your pants then, after a few years, most Americans will stop buying it. It's not a great line to draw, but at least we have one.
Top image: Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock