The Checkout

Olestra Attack

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has taken the first step in a legal battle against Frito-Lay, accusing the company of deceptively marketing its "light" potato chips. The consumer advocacy group says the chips are made with Olestra, a controversial fat substitute that causes diarrhea, stomach cramps and other unappetizing symptoms.

Since 1998, when Frito-Lay first introduced Olestra to its chip lines (which were first labeled WOW!, then renamed to light in 2004), CSPI has been loudly warning consumers about the potential side effects of Olestra. Initially, the Food and Drug Administration required food makers to post warning labels on food that contained Olestra, but in 2003, the agency dropped that requirement.

CSPI says Frito-Lay deliberately changed the WOW! name to light to deceive people into thinking the product was new, Olestra-free and of course, low-calorie. "Changing the name represented an attempt to revive a dying product, regardless of consumers' well-being," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. Frito-Lay makes Olestra chips under the Lay's, Ruffles and Doritos labels.

CSPI said it forwarded 396 new consumer health complaints about Olestra products to the FDA last week, making a total of 3,753 complaints that the group has sent the FDA since 1996. CSPI asked the agency to reinstate the warning label. Meanwhile, it is readying a class-action lawsuit against Frito-Lay in Massachusetts, which has some of the friendliest pro-consumer protection laws in the country. Before the suit can be filed, however, the plaintiffs have to give the defendant 30 days notice. That's what CSPI did today.

Frito-Lay spokeswoman Aurora Gonzalez said Olestra is safe and has been approved for use since 1996. "It is one of the most widely researched food ingredients, so the issue of safety doen't apply." She added that the company has always been forthright about Olestra, following the FDA requirements about labeling. The light chips still bear an Olean decal on the front of the packages and Olestra is listed as an ingredient on the back, Gonzalez said. "We feel we're being very forthcoming," Gonzalez said.

By  |  January 4, 2006; 2:45 PM ET Legal Battles/Settlements
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I tried WOW! chips when they first entered the market in the late '90s. I read the labels and news reports, so I knew there'd be a chance of some rather gross side effects. I was on the toilet for some time after eating a few chips. Guess what, I didn't eat them again. I didn't need the government stepping in, and I certainly felt no need to file suit against Frito-Lay. So damn frivolous. Besides, olestra left my mouth pasty.

Posted by: Chipeater in DC | January 4, 2006 3:50 PM

I've eaten Olestra chips from Frito-Lay for years and have had no problem side effects. I wish that Olestra were offered in more products. Olestra chips are great!

Posted by: Chipeater in CT | January 4, 2006 4:31 PM

I think that the side effects are fun, in context. That being said, I have chosen not to include Olestra products in my diet. I suppose that I agree with Chipeater in DC and envy Chipeater in CT.

Posted by: Tom Canick | January 4, 2006 6:27 PM

Hooray for CSPI! Finally, someone is going to do something about the deceptive tactics used by food manufacturers who seek to get Americans to consume the most unhealthful foods, in the pursuit of profit. Anyone who goes to eastern Europe, can see what the artificial American diet is doing to our girls. American girls have gotten ugly because of poor nutrition. European girls have smoother skin, brighter smiles, fewer blemishes, etc. This can only arise out of the poor diet that corporate America is foisting upon us. Such foods are banned in Europe. CSPI has my full support. Sue the bastards!! Given that the American FDA is totally corrupt, it is the only way.

Posted by: Chipeater in CA | January 5, 2006 11:26 AM

So, once again, the minority who have a reaction to a product are trying to spoil it for the rest of us.
This despite the fact that unlike dozens of products that can kill and have NO warning labels, this one only causes discomfort and DID have a warning label.
Peanut butter sandwich anyone?

Posted by: Verstopfen in LA | January 5, 2006 11:30 AM

Making a fat free chip is weird in my opinion. Anything that by nature is unhealthy for you and they remove the fat with a "subsitute" most be bad for you. Think about all the chemicals that must be in the chip to make it non-fat. It must more unhealthy for you than regular chips.

Posted by: Lauren | January 5, 2006 12:23 PM

I dunno, I'm with Frito-Lay on this one. They've been upfront with the ingredients since day one, and the "Olean" packaging draws in the relationshpi to Olestra (the effects of which did receive a good amount of reporting in the press)

I don't have a problem with CSPI seeking a label change, what I have a problem with is the fact that CSPI isn't out there targeting the foods industry in a more even handed manner. Might as well require a wanring label about the possible side effects of your Taco Bell order, or on baked beans or canned, processed stews. While we're at it, why not salads, heads of lettuce, and other types of "roughage."

Why not put a warning label on everything? "Warning: Eating too much candy may rot your teeth"
"Warning: Drinking too may sodas and eating too many Ho-ho's without a vigorous exercise regimine may lead to obesity"
"Warning: Farm-fresh fruits and vegetables may contain some pesticide residues. You may become sick upon consumption of significant amounts of such products. Wash before eating or discard altogether."
"Warning: Due to their growing environment, Farm-fresh ORGANIC fruits and vegetables may contain dnagerous levels of bacteria such as e. coli and trace amounts of harmful yet naturally occuring chemical substances such as lead and arsenic. You may become sick upon consumption of such products. Wash carefully before eating or discard altogether."

There's no limit to how far this could go.

Posted by: chipfan | January 5, 2006 3:27 PM

I'm not sure where you got your info, but E. Coli is generally a water born illness, and I've never heard of an incidence where it was found in fruit. It primarily comes from sewage and feces.

Lead and arsenic (and mercury for that matter) are all naturally occuring, but where they do occur naturally they usually don't occur in amounts that are lethal. Areas where amounts are lethal or at least higher, are usually subject to some sort of outside influence, such as industrial discharges, or air pollution deposition.

Posted by: RG | January 5, 2006 6:32 PM

RG, I'm sure you would be one among many consumers suprised to learn that organic farmers can opt to use... how to say... "natural" fertilizer on their crops. "Organic" agricultural fertilizer may consist of biosolids, which are the nutrient-rich organic materials produced as a result of the treatment of sewage sludge. The water treament process should eliminate most pathogens, but there's still the chance that some make it through. More more info., go take a peek at EPA's volume of information - simply go to the website and type in "biosolids" in the search field. Or, look at

The fact of the matter is that E.coli is not an illness, it's a bacteria. It can be found in many places, not just water. Most commonly associated with fecal matter, it's the key culprit in many a salad bar and burger joint food poisoning incident (see Ponderosa and Jack In The Box). E. coli was also the culprit in the Malt-o-meal bagged cereals food poisoniong incidents in recent years.

This writer never mentioned the term "lethal," instead I used the term harmful. If you're considering the purchase of, for example, organic potatoes, you'd be wise to wash them thoroughly in hot water to reduce the amount of naturally occuring bacteria and chemicals that may be present in the soils.

Regardless, my point was that folks may see an adverse affect to any type food they consume, whether it's an allergic reaction or an exposure to chemicals or pathogens. If CSPI is going after a brand of potato chip that has a fairly small market niche, they should go after all foods. I simply disagree with their premise. The general public is well aware that there is some measure of risk, slim as it may be, in consuming foods that they make part of the diet, but the fact is that they standard for marketplace is that they are generally regarded as safe, not 100% risk-free.

Posted by: Chpfan | January 6, 2006 2:17 PM

Tabacco whats wrong with tabacco?(philip morris owns frito)

Posted by: Kip Athan | January 9, 2006 12:13 PM

CSPI has collected 3,753 complaints in 9 years only because they've been specifically asking consumers to connect any physical discomfort they feel with the potato chips they may have eaten. They have no way of proving a causal link to the symptoms, nor have they even attempted to find out what percentage of total Olestra eaters have the problems they allege. If you're looking for problems, you'll find them, but that doesn't mean that the product is unsafe for the vast majority of consumers who continue to eat them without discomfort.

Posted by: Alice | January 12, 2006 2:18 PM

Fact is that some people have GI problems with Olestra and some don't. I can eat dam n near anything and not be bothered by it.... woodchips and gravy don't affect me. But if I eat more tha a few chips of Olestra, then I have problems with my GI tract. Also, I don't like the pasty feeling in my mouth after a few chips.

Posted by: Mike | March 10, 2006 12:18 AM

I tried "WOW" in '98. Didn't particularly notice a taste difference to draw me back. But, I did have immediate discharge problems (seepage) that continue to this day! In reviewing other comments, I've looked for similar reaction in others, found none to date. I must have been singularly over sensitive to them!

Posted by: | April 27, 2006 9:31 AM

I tried these chips as well when they first came out it immediantly had me on the toliet with diareaha and bad stomache cramps...I never touched them again until recently i found the fat free pringles which did not state on the front it was in them or i would not have gotten them ...i had a few my husband and my son..we all had the same things occer ..waking up i hte night with extreme diareaha and bad stomache pains!this is when i looked at the ingrediants and noticed this in the chips ..well lets say they were thrown out right away .....i feel they need to warn about this on the label and on the front should say it is in the chips ...y should peole have to see their loved ones and children suffer terribly just for a few chips they ate ..its ridiculous is what it is shouldnt be allowed to be on the market in my opinion..

Posted by: Dianne | May 12, 2006 12:51 PM

I have enjoyed WOW and Ruffles Light for years now, and I consider them healthful. Truth be known, all these complainers probably would rather ingest all that OTHER fat along with their regular laxative routine. Please, Mr. Mfr., bring back the Olean to the baking products section of our grocery shelves.

Posted by: chipeater in MO | July 13, 2006 3:23 PM

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