Olestra Builds Fat Niche in Snack Market


Buoyed by a second positive regulatory review, salty snacks made with the olestra fat substitute are turning into one of the decade’s most successful new food-product introductions.

A survey conducted by Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. for Frito-Lay Inc. shows that the Dallas-based snack-food company sold $58 million of its Wow brand chips made with olestra during its first two months in the market. That’s nearly twice the $29 million in sales recorded by Nabisco’s Snackwell’s product during a comparable introductory period in 1993.

“There’s no question it’s been the most successful product launch of the ‘90s,” said Lynn Markley, spokeswoman for Frito-Lay. “We’ve sold more than 100 million bags since February.”

Olestra, which is being sold under the Olean name by Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co., sparked controversy during test marketing in several Midwestern states in recent years. The Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest continues to attack the no-calorie fat substitute as a little-understood food additive that poses potentially dramatic health risks.


The Food and Drug Administration approved olestra for use in salty snacks in 1996, but regulators demanded that snack food producers include a label cautioning that olestra might cause “loose stools and abdominal cramping.”

The second FDA review completed in June found no significant health risks associated with olestra, but the agency ordered continued use of the cautionary language.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the CSPI, argues that the FDA has “summarily dismissed 9,000 reports of people with adverse reactions. . . . They simply said there’s no proof. But a reasonable person would agree that it’s highly likely olestra products were involved.”

The consumer group also has asked the Federal Trade Commission to require producers of olestra-based products to include cautionary language in their advertisements--something that hasn’t been mandated.


P&G; and Frito-Lay executives described the clean bill of health contained in the second FDA review as welcome, given the CSPI attacks. “We’re ecstatic,” said Greg Allgood, a P&G; scientist and spokesman. “It was excellent news. We passed with flying colors, which is important because they’d given our critics an enormous amount of extra time to present their arguments.”

The center alleged that olestra could lead to heart disease because it blocks absorption of vitamins and nutrients. But the FDA review found no evidence of a problem.

Allgood said P&G;'s most recent research backs up the company’s previous assertion that the label isn’t necessary. “We’ve got research that’s consistent with what we found earlier,” he said. “There’s no meaningful effect as far as the need for the label language.”

P&G;, which introduced its own line of no-fat Pringles chips in late June, is reporting strong initial sales. P&G; gave away 3,000 cans of the product during a June 25 event at the Beverly Center mall. And, like Frito-Lay, P&G; ties the product’s success to consumer demand for lower-calorie snacks that taste more like the real thing.


“This is clearly something that consumers want,” said P&G; spokeswoman Sydney McHugh. “No fat and reduced calories are a meaningful benefit, something that meets an expressed consumer demand. We realize, though, that Olean . . . is not a replacement for common sense . . . including a balanced diet and proper exercise.”