WOW! Chips were fat free potato chips produced by Frito-Lay that contained Olestra. They were first brought to the marketplace in 1998, and were initially marketed under the Lay’s, Ruffles and Doritos brand umbrellas. Despite initially proving popular and clocking up sales of $400 million in the first year, they subsequently dropped to sales of $200 million by the year 2000.
Olestra was proven to cause abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, fecal incontinence and other gastrointestinal problems in some customers. As a result, warnings had to be included on the packaging that read, “This Product Contains Olestra. Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E, and K have been added.”
Olestra is made from vegetable oil and sugar that is blended in such a way that is produces molecules that are significantly bigger than normal fat molecules. The substance cooks like regular vegetable oil and products that are made with it do not compromise anything in terms of their taste.
Due to the size of Olestra molecules however, our bodies can’t digest it, hence why it was used as an alternative to vegetable oil in the fat-free frenzy of the 1990s, as it effectively passes straight through the body after consumption.
Olestra was initially discovered accidentally by Procter & Gamble researchers F. Mattson and R. Volpenhein back in 1968 as they researched fats that could potentially be more easily digested by premature infants. P&G met with the Food and Drug Administration in 1971 to examine what sort of testing would be required in order for Olestra to be introduced as a food additive.
During the tests that followed, P&G noticed that blood cholesterol levels in the body declined as a result of olestra replacing natural dietary fats. The potentially lucrative commercial possibilities that arose out of this fact caused P&G to file a new patent request in 1975 with the FDA to use olestra as a “drug”, for the purpose of lowering cholesterol levels.
The series of lengthy studies that followed however, failed to demonstrate the 15% reduction that was required by the FDA for it to be approved as a treatment. Additional work on olestra then languished for several years.
Junk food lovers instantly fell in love with Wow! Chips when they were released by Frito Lay’s in the late 1990s and the snack was particularly popular with dieters.
As people began to file complaints to the FDA about the side effects of the Olestra contained in the chips however, the negative publicity soon took its toll on the so-called miracle product.
Several victims of olestra poisoning spoke at a press conference at the time and cited the following unpleasant symptoms:
- Dana Loflin, a 30-year-old mother of four from Plainfield, Indiana said that her 14-year-old daughter experienced abdominal cramps after school after eating about 30 Cooler Ranch Wow Doritos at lunch. Her 12-year-old son experienced diarrhoea for seven days, and gas after snacking on about 5 ounces of Nacho Cheese Wow Doritos at home. He had an accident in bed at 4 a.m., and missed two days of school.
- Wendy Guthrie said that she, her husband, and two sons – ages eight and four – got sick after eating Barbeque-flavoured Wow chips. All four suffered fecal urgency, diarrhoea, nausea, flatulence, discoloured stools, and abdominal cramps.
- Iris Bennett, a 71-year-old homemaker from Beech Grove, Indiana, got very sick after eating half of a sample bag of chips – about half an ounce. She experienced nausea, severe abdominal cramps, and vomiting. She ate the Wow chips around 3:00 p.m. as a snack, and the symptoms lasted until 4 the next morning.
- Pat McGhehey, a 63-year-old pet groomer from Indianapolis, ate half of a family-sized bag of Lay’s original Wow chips (about 6 ounces of chips) as a snack and suffered severe and horrible smelling gas, bloating, flatulence, yellow-orange stains, and greasy stools. The symptoms occurred while she was at work and lasted until 2 a.m. that morning. Her 29 year old daughter experienced cramps and diarrhoea.
Wow! Chips were subsequently taken off the market in 2000 after sales had halved to $200 million. People began to lose trust in Frito Lay’s and the health craze in general had started to die down.
By 2002, products that contained Olestra had all but disappeared from the market and P&G had to sell off its Olestra production operation.
In our opinion, we don’t think Frito Lay’s made as huge a business blunder as some would suggest by using Olestra in their product. The amount of staff here at The W1nners’ Club that regularly have Monday mornings off as a result of supposed ‘chronic diarrhoea’ would suggest that everybody else must be using it in their products – or maybe it’s only used in beer these days?