The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Consumer Advocates Pursue FDA, Olestra Producers Over Warning Labels

by Brendan Coyne

Jan. 5, 2006 – A consumer-advocacy organization is threatening to sue Frito-Lay over the snack company’s marketing of chips containing the fat substitute olestra. The group wants the Pepsi Co subsidiary to reinstate prominent warnings on the packaging telling consumers about possible diarrhea, stomach cramping and other digestive problems associated with faux fat.

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In leveling the demand, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), threatened to sue Frito-Lay on behalf of a woman who claims to have experienced severe digestive discomfort after consuming potato chips carried under the company’s "Light" line of salty snacks.

Olestra passes zero calories on to consumers because it contains molecules too large for the body to digest. Those oversized molecules are also known to cause stomach and intestinal problems. Until 2003, the US Food and Drug Administration required all products containing olestra, manufactured as Olean by Proctor & Gamble, to carry an explicit warning about possible complications from ingesting the product.

In 2003, the FDA relaxed rules demanding products containing olestra carry a warning label on their packaging. The agency based its decision on industry-submitted post-market studies of products containing olestra as well as on "adverse effect reports" compiled separately by Proctor & Gamble and CSPI. In a statement announcing the change, the FDA said that most consumers are aware of the fat substitute’s potentially adverse gastrointestinal effects, but did not address questions raised by CSPI and others over the frequency of such effects and the reliability of the Proctor & Gamble studies.

Shortly after the FDA rule changed, Frito Lay began marketing products with olestra as part of its "Light" line, cutting back significantly on producing the "Wow" line that carried the original warning. According to data compiled by CSPI, sales of the olestra chips jumped with the new marketing.

In a press statement, CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said: "Changing the name from WOW to Light reflects Frito-Lay’s duplicitous efforts to save a dying product, regardless of consumers’ wellbeing."

Yesterday, CSPI sent acting FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach its tenth set of adverse-effect reports on olestra and renewed its request that the FDA bring back the previous labeling requirements.

"We urge the FDA once again to reinstate the olestra warning notice on packages of olestra-containing products," Jacobson said. "The need for a warning is stronger than before, since… consumers who were trying to avoid olestra by avoiding WOW products are unwittingly buying Light chips and sometimes getting sick."

Responding to the threat of a lawsuit, Frito-Lay spokesperson Aurora Gonzales told the Associated Press: "It's an extremely safe product, well-tested. If the law says we don't have to have [a label], we don't see the need for it either."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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