Why, though? The fat-free chips with one explosive issue

Fat-free chips sounded great until people had to digest them.

When Starbucks came out with its new Oleato drinks — coffee beverages infused with olive oil — some customers claimed it was akin to a laxative.

A man and woman hold their stomachs in pain. Behind them, are several oversized potato chips against a pink background.

That particular issue must not have been too widespread, as the drink remains on Starbucks’ extensive menu. But something similar was the much-talked-about downfall of one food product.

Guilt-free, but not gut-friendly

Since 1968, Procter & Gamble had been trying to use a substance called olestra for various purposes, including as a nutritional supplement for premature babies and a cholesterol medicine, to no avail.

Finally, in 1996, the FDA approved it as a food additive because it tasted like fat but couldn’t be absorbed by the body — so, delicious minus the calorie count.

In 1998, Frito-Lay used olestra in its line of diet Wow! chips. They were a hit, racking up $347m in sales in the first year.

But there was a problem

The FDA received 20k+ complaints from people who claimed the chips gave them diarrhea and other gastrointestinal issues.

Bad, but worse: The Center for Science in the Public Interest shared a study commissioned by Frito-Lay that found 3%-9% of people who consumed olestra experienced “anal oil leakage.”

That’s the kind of publicity you just don’t recover from. By 2000, sales had dropped to $200m and the product had become a punchline.

Because digestive issues were a known possibility…

… when consuming olestra, the FDA mandated that the chips come with a label warning of potential abdominal cramping and “loose stools.”

In 2003, the agency removed that label, saying most side effects were mild (akin to those that some people experience when eating fibrous fruits), and that it’s possible people blamed the chips for issues caused by other problems because of the label.

It’s also possible that some people just ate too much at a time. A 2011 study found that rats that consumed olestra chips actually gained more weight than rats that ate regular ones, as fat substitutes can lead to overeating.

Still, a peek at Reddit reveals many people have some not-so-fond memories of eating those chips and, regardless, consumers no longer vilify fat the way they did in the ‘90s.

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