The Diarrhea-Inducing Failure of the Fat Free Revolution
Geege Schuman stashed this in FAIL
What doomed olestra? Health concerns kept olestra from ever receiving approval in Canada or much of Europe. In the United States, while many reported that olestra products tasted as good as the original, a chorus of people claimed it tasted inferior. Olestra products also came with a higher price tag.
The biggest problem, though, was the link between olestra and gastrointestinal distress. When Quartz wrote about olestra chips this year, the author asked “Remember Olestra? Those gut-wrenching chips from the 90s?”
The olestra story easily fits the narrative of a corporation pushing an unhealthy food despite health concerns. Lobbyists, special patent protections… the story writes itself. But no company wants to risk releasing a product that will garner feedback like the sugarless gummy bears. Gastrointestinal issues sank the product, hurting P&G’s bottom line.
Like any good company, P&G ran trials of olestra chips before nationwide release. The company received thousands of complaints. The Center for Science in the Public Interest did as well, publishing consumer feedback as gruesome as the gummy bear reviews. “One 63-year-old Indianapolis woman,” the Center wrote, “ruined three pair of underwear and had no friends for two days after eating olestra chips."
How did Procter & Gamble miss it? Or why did they not care?
Until the olestra story gets the Michael Lewis book treatment, we won’t know for sure. Procter & Gamble declined a request for an interview, and Haribo did not reply.
Whether it was a blind spot or deliberate, the obvious reason is that P&G executives had a huge incentive not to find any problems with the product. With hundreds of millions of dollars and two decades of time invested, and the patent window closing, the pressure to win approval must have been immense. Further, while innumerable artificial, low calorie sweeteners exist today, olestra seemed at the time like the holy grail. In theory, olestra was going to have the same taste as fatty foods. And yet olestra was not fake fat -- it was delicious, decadent fat with no consequences. Products with olestra would still be loaded with fat even while advertised as diet food.
It’s possible that individuals at P&G fell for their own story.
On one hand, the tiny sample sizes often used by P&G (when working on a product with a $1 billion per year potential, why run a study with a sample size of 50 people?) seems duplicitous. Yet many impartial observers found P&G’s story -- that health concerns were overblown and the FDA dragging its feet -- convincing.
Writing in The New Yorker in 2001, Malcolm Gladwell described olestra as “perhaps the most elegant solution” to the problem of fast food’s terrible health toll. He also made the argument repeated by P&G that concerns about diarrhea and the like were likely overstated -- diarrhea is a common problem in the U.S. and olestra’s effects are similar to fiber. Visiting a Procter & Gamble test kitchen in 1997, the Wall Street Journal’s Raju Narisetti said he had “eaten plenty of chips made with olestra to no ill effect” and found the food pretty good.
In 2011, a Purdue study hammered the final nail in the olestra coffin. It found that olestra incites weight gain by tricking the body into thinking it doesn’t need to metabolize fatty foods. Used to olestra fat without any calories, the body is surprised by the calories of the real thing.
Net-net it was a dead end in the holy grail search for food that does not fatten us.