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Group fighting use of fat substitute

Published Sep. 16, 2005

A consumer watchdog group announced Tuesday a television ad campaign to warn viewers that eating Frito-Lay's new "Max" potato and tortilla chips, which contain the fat substitute Olestra, may cause diarrhea and cramps.

"Olestra is simply not safe. A product like this should not be on the market," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Frito-Lay's new fat-free chips are the first foods to be made with Procter & Gamble Co.'s controversial Olestra, the first calorie-free fat replacement. The Food and Drug Administration approved Olestra in January for use in chips, crackers, popcorn and similar snack foods.

Critics of the non-digestable Olestra have charged that the product can cause severe gastrointestinal side effects, including diarrhea, cramps, loose stools and incontinence. The Olestra molecule has also been found to deplete the amount of fat-soluble vitamins and carotenoids in the body.

"There's nothing new in what was reported today," said Procter & Gamble spokeswoman Sydney McHugh. "The center has been opposed to Olestra for nine years, and the FDA has rejected their arguments."

Frito-Lay, owned by PepsiCo, began test marketing in April its new snack food in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Eau Claire, Wis., and Grand Junction, Colo.

"The three test cities are rapidly becoming the diarrhea capitals of America," said Jacobson.

Jacobson said his office has received around 50 complaints from consumers in the three cities of diarrhea, cramps, nausea and other ailments after eating sometimes only small quantities of the chips.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest investigates the nutritional value of many popular foods. It recently disclosed its findings on the high fat contents of some popular chains' sweet rolls and so-called low-fat muffins.

Jacobson and his group have been vocal critics of Olestra from the beginning and have appealed the FDA's approval. He said Tuesday the center did not know where the appeal stands.

The consumer group will begin running television commercials this week in the three test cities to warn viewers of the possible side effects.

The ads _ estimated by Jacobson to cost the center around $50,000 _ show a can of dog food with the same label notice on it as the Olestra-containing chips carry. The notice warns of abdominal cramping and loose stools. An announcer asks viewers if they would buy dog food with this label on it, then asks if they would buy the new Max chips, which carry the label, for their children.

Frito-Lay, the No. 1 snack food producer in the United States, did not appear to feel threatened by the campaign.

"Our test markets are going well. People are giving our product the thumbs up _ it's been beyond our expectations," said Lynn Markley, director of public relations for Frito-Lay.

Markley said that more than 150,000 bags of the chips have been sold since the marketing began in April.

Markley said Frito-Lay is taking seriously complaints the company has received, and has referred many of them to Procter & Gamble. She said that if consumers have "discomfort," they should adjust their usage.