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Makers say Olestra is doing well in test markets

Published Oct. 1, 2005

(ran SP, ST editions)

Whatever happened to Olestra? When last we left the story of the controversial fat substitute, it was being test marketed in snack chips in three cities. Despite approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, consumer groups and manufacturers were lined up on both sides of the grocery store aisle, taking pot shots at it.

Procter & Gamble, the manufacturer of Olestra, and Frito-Lay, which was test marketing it in its chips, argued that Olestra, a synthetic chemical made of sugar and vegetable oil, passes through the body safely. Consumer watchdog groups contended that the product, which appears in foods under the name Olean, can cause gastrointestinal distress and that it depletes nutrients believed to prevent disease.

To hedge its bets, the FDA requires all packages to carry a warning label.

A year later, the product is alive and well, according to the manufacturers, and is being test marketed in new products and new places. P&G is test marketing its own product, Pringles, and Frito-Lay has moved on to larger test markets. Incidentally, Frito-Lay has changed the name of the chips from Max to Wow.

"We were in test markets for six months," says Lynn Markley, Frito-Lay spokeswoman, "and we tested it to see what consumers thought, and we learned they liked snacks made with Olean as a choice. Sales were brisk, and we were encouraged, so we went to a larger test market, 3,000 locations in Indiana.

"Consumers felt the name Max didn't describe the product as best as it could. We tried hundreds of names, and Wow captured the nutritional benefits and great taste."

Meanwhile, in Grand Junction, Colo., Nabisco is testing fat-free Ritz and fat-free Wheat Thins made with the product.

"Ritz and Wheat Thins are the 1 and 2 best-selling crackers on the market," says Ann Smith of Nabisco. "They have very distinct tastes that people like, that we couldn't develop into a fat-free variety that would capture the taste, but with Olean we can deliver."

The crackers are doing very well, she says, but don't expect a national roll-out anytime soon. Test marketing is a complex phenomenon.

"We have to wait six to 12 months to complete the results and see how it does," she says. "If it does well, you look at where you want to go. Do you want to test market it somewhere else or roll it out nationally? Every product is different."

Sometimes all factors are go and the product moves immediately into national production, as happened with Nabisco Snackwells Cereal Bars, which were test marketed in Denver.

Even if all factors were go, no one could roll out Olestra-related products nationally just yet. Procter & Gamble doesn't have a plant with enough capacity just yet.