June 1, 2006 — -- The fat substitute Olean has helped some people enjoy once-fattening foods like potato chips without having to worry about their waistline.
For others, like Lori Perlow of Braintree, Mass., eating products that contain Olean, such as Ruffles Light, gave her disturbing -- though temporary -- digestive problems.
"I was driving my car when my symptoms hit," Perlow told the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which prepared a lawsuit on her behalf. "Frankly, I feel lucky to have reached my destination in one piece."
Perlow's complaint and others like it triggered action from the center, which recently threatened to sue Frito-Lay for deceptively marketing its line of "light" potato chips and not clearly labeling them as products that contain Olean, which mimics the taste and texture of fat but is not digested in the same way.
As a result, the snack-food giant agreed this week to make adjustments to its "light" brand products -- Doritos Light, Lay's Light, Ruffles Light and Tostitos Light.
Frito-Lay director of public affairs Aurora Gonzalez confirmed that the company had received the center's letter of intent to sue. She also said the company was making changes to its label. Frito-Lay is a division of PepsiCo.
"From our end, our products have always been in compliance, in terms of labeling, with the FDA," she said. "In addition, we have added some additional language to help consumers understand the product."
She said the Food and Drug Administration had loosened package label requirements several years ago after the agency determined the digestive effects of Olean -- also known by the generic name olestra -- were similar to bran or psyllium, a bulk-forming laxative, according to the National Library of Medicine.
All Frito-Lay "light" brands will now contain an oval-shaped Olean logo, and a banner reading "made with Olestra." The back of chip packages also will contain a statement explaining that Olean is a fat substitute, although it will not mention the negative adverse reactions, such as speeding up the digestive system.
"We're pleased that Frito-Lay agreed to these modest changes, which are sufficient to avoid a lawsuit and will help consumers who know enough to avoid Olestra to do so," said the center's executive director Michael F. Jacobson in a prepared statement. "That this unsavory chemical was allowed to enter -- and remain -- in the food supply at all represents a serious mistake by the Food and Drug Administration."
When the FDA approved olestra in 1996, Dr. David Kessler, who was the FDA commissioner at the time, said in a statement announcing the decision: "Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools in some individuals, and inhibits the body's absorption of certain fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients. FDA is requiring … manufacturers who use olestra to label all foods made with it, and, to protect the public health, to add essential vitamins -- Vitamins A, D, E and K -- to olestra."
According to the center, more than 3,700 consumers have filed reports on its Web site about adverse reactions to olestra-containing products since 1996 for problems like cramping, fecal urgency, and even extreme diarrhea.