How Good is Olestra?

Olé! Olestra is here! Olean, Procter & Gamble’s brand name for the fake fat derived from cottonseed and soybean oils and sugar, has finally landed on our supermarket shelves in the form of potato chips — regular, ridged and mesquite barbecue — and Doritos tortilla chips just in time for picnic season.

Compared to regular chips that have about 10 grams of fat per 1-ounce serving, Frito Lay’s Olean WOW! potato chips are all fat-free with half the calories of regular chips, while the tortilla chips have 1 gram of fat per 1-ounce serving. Farmer Joe, WOW! chips’ Frito Bandito, assures us they come from nature. Bags come in four sizes, packaged in festive colors like Mylar party balloons. If snack foods were debuted à la the fashion world, the WOW! line would get high marks for its fat-full look, feel and all-important you-can’t-eat-just-one factor. Amazingly, they are actually a little too greasy. So, it’s a given that the olestra munchables must be too good to be true, hence the rash of press about their side effects: diarrhea, cramps and the unfortunately phrased "anal leakage," plus the fact that the synthetic fat inhibits the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K, as well as carotenoids, which the body uses to fight cancer and heart disease. There’s even a warning label on each bag of olestra snacks, courtesy the federal Food and Drug Administration, which advises, "Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools." Obviously, you probably shouldn’t eat olestra products with any regularity. And people who are happy with three-fourths of an ounce of chips should just stick to the full-fat variety. But for the rest of us, the beauty of olestra is permission to overindulge in perfectly crunchy, salty, good-tasting potato chips that merrily leave your fingers shiny — without the fat and half the guilt. A 5-ounce bag of Olean WOW! Ruffles Original Potato Chips comes in at 375 calories and 0 grams of fat. So, in theory, and only on rare occasions, one could gorge enough to get sick (not side-effect sick, but the good kind of sick), as long as you went straight to the gym and ate a bucket of broccoli later. The only issue remaining is that darn anal leakage. The olestra test marketers who reported severe symptoms all ate one serving, about 17 chips, or less. What good do those statistics do for the champion snacker? So, in the name of research for my fellow conscientious chip-lovers, I decided to experiment by eating more WOW! chips than anyone should. For my guinea-pig-out, I told the husband (who can eat just one and therefore doesn’t deserve olestra) to make like a WOW! chip and eliminate himself. I stocked up with:

1 5-oz. bag WOW! Ruffles 1 5-oz. bag WOW! Original Lays 1 7-oz. bag WOW! Doritos Tortilla Chips — Nacho Cheesier 1 2-liter bottle Diet Coke (to cleanse the palate) 1 six-pack Miller Lite (to give the experiment a party feel) 1 bottle Maalox, Lemon-Creme flavor (actual victims were given Imodium).

For the record, the bathroom is about 20 feet down the hall from the TV room, where the experiment took place. Full disclosure: I have the classic "cast-iron" stomach, though several people who reported severe side effects from olestra also claimed they could eat almost anything without any adverse reactions. THE TEST, Sunday, 4 p.m.

Beavis and Butt-head Do America

on cable seems like appropriate accompaniment. I start with the classic Ruffles (same

r-r-r-idges!). Since eating regular potato chips comes with such crime-related guilt, it takes a while to accept that once you’ve gone past four or five chips, you’re not on a one-way trolley to liposuctionville. But in the name of investigative journalism, I crunch ahead. The sturdy ridges beg for a condiment; I briefly consider making "white-trash dip" from sour cream (fat-free, natch) and Lipton’s onion-soup mix, but since that would require a trip to the store (rule No. 1 for any olestra-tester is no leaving the house) and might curb chip intake, I nix the idea and forge ahead, alternating only with Diet Coke. For variety, I bust open the Doritos ($2.99 a bag vs. $1.99 for potato chips). While the Olean Ruffles taste like thin potato slices fried in hot oil, their consistency is a tad grittier, and the oily aftertaste leaves you feeling like you’ve used ChapStick left over from the ’60s, the Doritos merit status in the impostor hall of fame. The triangular corn chips with a dusting of orange cheez-like powder are what Patty Duke’s Cathy Lane was to Patty — they look alike, they taste alike, they even coat your hands alike! Like WOW! By 6 p.m., I’ve made it through a 7-ounce bag of Doritos and a 5-ouncer of Ruffles. I never make it to the Original Lays, but I now have 12 ounces of olestra, potato and corn inside me, and although I can’t even look at the crumbs on the floor without feeling full to bursting, internally all is calm. I crack a beer and raise a toast to Farmer Joe. Most incidences of olestra-related gastrointestinal problems and worse were reported several hours after consumption, so I try to forget all about Procter & Gamble, Farmer Joe, soybeans and "loose stools." THE RESULTS: My olestra binge caused no adverse side effects. At all. Ready to confidently tout the snack geniuses at Frito Lay, I attend the anti-olestra press conference presented by Washington’s Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the same people who ruined movie-theater popcorn and kung pao chicken (and also — duh — Mexican food) for everyone by exposing those foods’ artery-clogging high fat content. After checking in at a conference room at the Hollywood Holiday Inn — CNN’s on the olestra case, too — a well-dressed woman appears at my side and slips her business card into my hand. "I’m with Frito Lay," she practically whispers. "I’ll be in the bar downstairs afterward if you have any questions." We make brief eye contact, and she backs away to work the rest of the room. I am tempted but too chicken to sit in the front row and chomp through a bag of Mesquite BBQ WOW!s while CSPI’s Michael Jacobson gravely delivers the facts about olestra’s dangers and even condemns Farmer Joe. He calls olestra "the food industry’s version of a fraternity prank." Then there’s the video footage of "victims" — initials only, no last names — stories of underwear stains, hours of gas pains, and the lady who said her cramps felt like "the beginning of labor." I may have lost my appetite, and it’s worrisome that the package labeling doesn’t give you any indication about the carotenoid factor — someone who eats olestra chips regularly can therefore leave himself more susceptible to heart disease and cancer. But in my case, the personal triumphs over the political. After tempting fate with a full-blown overdose, I’ve become an olestra believer. And as a believer, I regard the protestations of the cadre for clean living with what I like to consider a healthy dose of skepticism. In a blatant attempt to steer journalists onto conspiracy and satanic-triangle theories, Jacobson points out that Procter & Gamble also makes Attends adult diapers and Tide, but the highlight of the press conference is TV health evangelist Susan Powter, who gives the proceedings hot copy by holding up a bag of WOW! chips and announcing, "Wow! My anus is leaking!" All I can say is, "Wow."

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