Love Those Chips!
One woman's olestra saga can be a lesson for us all
This is a love story.
I love Doritos.
I have loved them as long as I can remember. I love the telltale orange mess they leave on your fingers and face; I love finding the chip that has so much "nacho cheese" on it that it is almost red; I love the way they taste with a cold diet soda; I'll even be so gauche as to say that I love the unmistakable stench of Doritos breath.
This all would be fine, if I had any concept of what constitutes a normal serving -- if I knew to exercise a little thing called portion control. With Doritos, one quickly begets 10. And 10 really means 20. So soon I've got an evening on the couch, with a worn-out palate and a bloated countenance, not to mention waistline. It's not pretty.
So, for a while, I swore off my beloved snack. I painfully avoided the siren call of the chip aisle. I felt a bit like Humbert Humbert; his wrenching, lascivious moan became my own: Do-ree-tos. Light of my life .... My sin, my soul.
And then came olestra. When Frito-Lay introduced its WOW line of snacks (now called Lay's Light snacks), made with this new kind of "fat," my taste buds tingled. From what I'd heard, olestra (marketed under the brand name Olean) offered the best of both worlds. Because it is, in fact, a fat, the taste and mouth-feel was virtually the same. But here's the kicker: The fat in olestra in indigestible, thus not absorbable. The fatty molecules are simply too big to be metabolized by enzymes and bacteria in the gut. Hallelujah! I could have my cake and eat it too.
Needless to say, I jumped on the Olean train with glee, snapping up bags and bags of WOW Doritos. All was well. It was a veritable summer of love. Pretty much every day after work, as I watched the evening news, I camped out on the couch with my (newly) guilt-free treat.
One day, after work and post-Doritos, I went for a run. I was living in Boston at the time, so I took to the banks of the Charles River. As I trotted along, I started to feel some cramping in my abdomen. Figuring it would go away, I kept jogging. But with every step, a new wave of pain welled in my belly. It got progressively worse and worse, even as I slowed to a mere crawl. I barely made it to a bathroom in time. I'd never felt such urgency or such sharp discomfort. WOW, indeed.
I was pretty positive it was the Doritos. I sheepishly told friends and family about my river runs. First, they laughed. Then, they were disgusted. Their chiding persuaded me to lay off the WOWs.
And I did.
"I think I am going to pass out"
But nine or 10 months later, just when the memory of the pain withered away, I started buying WOWs again.
Again, I went wild. I'd eat a third of a bag at a time, often several times a week. (According to the package, a serving is equal to a paltry 16 chips. But who really sticks to those arbitrary serving sizes anyway?) For the most part, though, I didn't have any problems (besides a lingering sense of shame, that is; I carefully hid the bags from my friends).
Then one evening, after a particularly large and satisfying portion of WOW Doritos, my stomach began to hurt. I was on the phone with a friend. I got off abruptly. The next four or five hours were excruciating. I lay on the cold bathroom floor until the early hours in the morning.
I called my good friend Emily at about 11:30.
"I think I am going to pass out," I managed to say.
"Just talk to me, please. Don't let me pass out. My stomach hurts so much..."
She stayed on the phone with me until the worst had passed, until I finally managed to crawl into bed -- shaking, freezing, dehydrated from the diarrhea and the vomiting and absolutely exhausted.
The next day I felt weak and shaky, but it was over. We met for tea near our offices. Emily ripped into me.
"Liz, what were you thinking? Didn't you learn from that time in Boston? Please promise me, no more WOWs, OK?"
Indeed, no more WOWs.
Now, I do realize that my case is a bit -- if not entirely -- on the extreme side. Although I never went to a doctor, I had more than a mere tummy ache. Like many people, I suspect, I was not at all proud of my action, nor of my lowbrow tastes. Neither is my mother. She was horrified, in fact, when I told her of my plans to write about my gastroinestinal distresses. ("Remember, you come from a good family!")
Do bad families blithely gobble more dubious food additives? I wonder.
Good or bad, I am not alone. In fact, more than 20,000 people have had problems like mine (to varying degrees) since olestra got Food and Drug Administration approval for use in salty snacks. And if it were up to the folks at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit health-advocacy group, olestra wouldn't be in our chips at all.
CSPI has been dogging olestra all along. It lobbied against the additive, and even set up a hot line to keep track of consumer complaints. On its Web site you can read similar tales of terror:
"A 52-year-old teacher who had eaten two ounces of WOW chips was at school where she experienced such severe cramps and diarrhea that she had to run from her classroom to get to the bathroom on time."
"A 4-year-old boy ate a handful of chips and was awakened at night with severely painful stomach cramps."
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI and a vocal foe of olestra, says, "Severe side effects might be acceptable from a cancer drug, but they are completely unacceptable from a food additive consumed by millions of people. Consumers shouldn't have to play Russian roulette with their health when they eat a few potato chips."
Jacobson has recruited dozens of other well-known health experts who echo his sentiments. These experts levy many criticisms: For one, olestra, on its oily exit from the body, inhibits absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as carotenoids, which some researchers say help prevent cancer. While olestra products are fortified with extra vitamins, they do not contain additional carotenoids. Children, older adults, and people with compromised nutritional status are particularly vulnerable to olestra, critics say. Oh, and then there's the horror of all horrors: anal leakage -- underwear staining caused by the seepage of liquid olestra through the anal sphincter. Lovely. (For the record, I escaped unscathed -- and unsoiled -- in that department.)
Dr. Doug Corley, a research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research, says, "When olestra is in the system, your gut is full of undigestible fat. To regain a sort of equilibrium, water is pulled out from the body." (He makes the analogy of dissolving sugar in water; when there is a lot of sugar, more water is needed to even it out.) The water causes loose stools. Also, as bacteria in the gut try to digest olestra, gas and bloating can occur as what Corley calls the "exhaust" from the process. The FDA used to require that all products made with Olean bear a label reminding consumers that "Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools," but the warnings are no longer mandatory.
Jerianne Heimendinger of the AMC Cancer Research Center in Denver sums it up: "The adverse effects of olestra outweigh its potential benefits."
Not surprisingly, chip-makers Procter & Gamble (Fat-Free Pringles) and Frito-Lay (the WOW/Light line of snacks) feel strongly otherwise. They contend that olestra products are a safe, valuable part of a healthy, low-fat diet.
Over at the Olean Web site, too, there is no mention of any "abdominal cramping and loose stools." Everyone here is snack-happy and liberal with exclamation marks. And the folks at Procter & Gamble (who invented Olean) claim that olestra has effects comparable to those caused by eating a lot of fiber. (Not true, says the CSPI. For one, your gut quickly adjusts to fibrous foods; it can never adjust to olestra.)
To try to combat all the bad press about stomach problems associated with olestra, Frito-Lay cites one Journal of the American Medical Association study (conducted by scientists from Procter & Gamble). It found people who ate olestra chips were no more likely to suffer from GI problems than people who ate chips made with vegetable oil. But in their olestra studies presented to the FDA, people who ate even relatively small servings (about 16 chips) had a five-fold increase in diarrhea compared to the people who ate the real thing. Me, I ate way more than that.
So, perhaps it all comes back to portion control. Would I have had the same violent symptoms if I had similarly gorged on regular Doritos? Honestly, I don't think so. But isn't that the whole point? That you simply can't stop after a paltry, salty handful? "Bet you can't eat just one" teased an ad for Lays Potato Chips. Pringle proclaimed: "Once you pop, you can't stop." After what I went through, make that po(op) till you drop.
So, in the end, my "love story" is actually a tale of love lost, of a love gone sour. But with such woe, such disillusionment and heart (stomach)ache has come a valuable lesson, and not necessarily the natural-is-better/everything-in-moderation one you'd think.
Instead, this is what I'll always remember: Never mess with perfection.
Fake-fat Olestra Sickens Thousands. 15,000 Cases Makes Olestra Most-Complained-About Additive Ever. Center for Science in the Public Interest Press Release. http://www.cspinet.org/new/olestra/olestra_12_22_98.htm
Prince DM, Welschenbach MA. Olestra: a new food additive. J Am Diet Assoc. 1998 May;98(5):565-9.
Cheskin LJ, et al. Gastrointestinal symptoms following consumption of olestra or regular triglyceride potato chips: a controlled comparison. JAMA, Vol. 279(2):150-2.
FDA Caves in on Olestra. Center for Science in the Public Interest. August 2003. http://www.cspinet.org/new/200308011.html