Priceonomics

The problem with Haribo’s sugar-free gummy bears is not the taste. “For taste I would rate these a 5,” writes one reviewer on Amazon. “So good. Soft, true-to-taste fruit flavors like the sugar variety...I was a happy camper.”

No. The problem with Haribo’s sugarless gummy bears is the side effects, including what could delicately be called a serious case of “the runs.” Or, less delicately, extreme, debilitating diarrhea and noxious farting. “The sounds, like trumpets calling the demons back to Hell,” begins the reviewer who enjoyed the taste so much, now cautioning about the side effects. “The stench, like 1,000 rotten corpses vomited… What came out of me felt like someone tried to funnel Niagara Falls through a coffee straw.” 

Her review is not an anomaly. “My hands are on the side of my seat not unlike that of a gymnast on a pommel horse, lifting me off my chair,” writes a man of his experience eating the bears while watching a basketball game. “I realize that at some point in the very near to immediate future I am going to have to allow this lava from Satan to forcefully expel itself from my innards.” In a 5 out of 5 star review, DeleriouslyHappyTaxPayer jokes, “Ideal gift for your Congressional Representatives,”

As “Satan's Diarrhea Hate Bears made by Haribo” went viral, thousands visited the Amazon page and every blog and media outlet shared its favorite reviews. A Vice reporter bravely downed several handfuls, accompanied by a photographer to document the bowel-shaking results. The Atlantic chimed in to explain how lycasin -- the reduced calorie, sugar replacement used to make the bears -- can’t be fully digested, which means no cavities but also gastrointestinal distress. 

To today’s Whole Foods sensibilities, it seems appropriate that Haribo’s attempt to give consumers a mass produced, sugary snack without any downside would fall flat. Eating healthy means washing dirt off produce, not tweaking the ingredients of candy in a lab. 

Thirty years ago, however, the food industry looked to products like Haribo’s gummy bears as the future. Delivering a fat substitute that allowed fat phobic and diet-crazed Americans to keep binging on packaged cookies, chips, and crackers without a difference in taste was the holy grail. When Procter & Gamble (P&G) -- one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, whose empire included Pringles at the time -- received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to sell snacks with its new fat substitute olestra, a substance similar to the one in Haribo’s gummies that added no fat, calories, or cholesterol to food, it thought it had a blockbuster. "The day P&G brings out Olestra it will be in potato chips, cookies, french fries -- endless products," one analyst predicted. "We're talking about major, major big-time markets and billions and billions of dollars. Just think about all of the diet-conscious Americans."

Consumers of the new olestra laden snacks, however, suffered like the unfortunate souls who bought Haribo’s sugarless gummy bears: Many loved the taste, but reported terrible diarrhea and gas that did not do wonders for Pringles sales. Procter & Gamble’s promised utopia of Americans eating whatever they wanted without consequences died in the fetal position between rushed trips to the bathroom.

The Invention of a Miracle Product

Procter & Gamble first discovered olestra in a fit of irony.

In 1968, two of its researchers synthesizing products that could deliver fat to prematurely born babies created sucrose polyester, which P&G dubbed olestra. Olestra completely failed at helping premature babies; its “large and fatty” molecules passed right through digestive systems without being absorbed. But it also bound to molecules like cholesterol and whipped them right out of the body. Seeing dollar signs for a cholesterol-reducing drug, P&G sought Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for olestra -- a push that failed after 10 years of failing to adequately demonstrate its health benefits. 

Undeterred, P&G spent millions to develop olestra as a fat substitute. Unlike artificial sweeteners widely used in products like diet soda, olestra is “is as much a process as a compound,” so it could be adapted for the fatty ingredients -- like cooking oils -- of many food products. P&G could use olestra in its own Pringles and license it to every other chip maker, but also make a specific adaption for, say, McDonalds’s deep fryers. P&G could look forward to a future in which it earned a profit from nearly every mass produced food product that wanted to market a low-fat, low-calorie alternative. 

As the company applied for the FDA to approve the use of olestra as a fat substitute, the executives must have had big plans for their bonuses.

“Side Effects Include…”

Although no longer marketing olestra as a drug, Procter & Gamble could make a compelling case for olestra as a boon to public health. As the medical community worried about rising obesity rates, olestra could dramatically reduce Americans’ fat and calorie intake. Naysayers may have worried that Americans would binge even more on snack foods and ignore fruits and vegetables, but P&G could poo poo such thinking as ignoring how Americans really ate.

Yet the approval process proved to be an uphill battle.

Just as P&G first looked to olestra as a drug for its ability to bind to cholesterol and sweep it out of the body, doctors worried that olestra would do the same with beneficial substances. Both Procter & Gamble and independent studies found that olestra foods decreased the absorption of certain vitamins and carotenoids -- something found in natural foods like fruits and vegetables that correlated with better health and less chronic illness. “The impaired absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, including carotenoids,” Dr. Ian Greaves of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health told a panel on olestra, “are sufficient reasons to have serious reservations about this food additive and to recommend that it not be introduced."

Olestra also faced another objection. Like Haribo’s gummy bears, olestra did not sit well with consumers. Procter & Gamble’s own initial studies found that both rats and later human testers reported increased rates of gastrointestinal distress. 

As P&G sought approval for olestra, independent studies continued to find -- as one study did -- that 16 potato chips made with olestra caused diarrhea in half of the participants. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an outspoken critic of olestra, asked people to think of “a giant 18-wheeler barreling down the highway at 70 miles per hour when [the driver] gets hit with a bout of fecal urgency” or “a teenager on a first date.” It also frankly reported the experiences of people testing olestra chips with “oil in the toilet” and “underwear staining from anal leakage.”

P&G would never shake the association between olestra and diarrhea. Even as olestra faced the final hurdles of FDA approval, the New York Times reported that “Olestra can also cause a wide range of gastrointestinal problems… including diarrhea and nausea.”

The Race to No Fat

After 5 years of struggling for approval with no sign of success, the bigwigs at Procter & Gamble were nervous. After nearly a quarter century of developing olestra, at a cost of some $200 to $300 million, the company seemed to be losing the race to dominate the low-fat food industry.

Monsanto, makers of Astroturf, had already introduced Simple Pleasures frozen desserts using a fat substitute called Simplesse. Although Simplesse broke down under heat, so it didn’t threaten olestra’s use in cooking oils and deep fryers, Monsanto enjoyed the jump in stock price P&G craved as Simplesse won approval with expectations of sales worth $300 million to $1 billion per year.

At the same time, in 1990, Kraft asked for FDA approval for its own fake fat, as did Arco Chemical. PepsiCo (makers of Frito-Lay) and Unilever (maker of just about everything) also spent millions researching fat substitutes.

So P&G went on an aggressive campaign to get olestra to market. As olestra’s patent would expire in 1995, P&G lobbied for and received an extension by complaining that the FDA had moved slowly on its application.

To address the vitamin concern, P&G limited their application to savory snacks like chips (instead of say, for tortillas used for burrito night), arguing that since people eat chips at different times than their veggies, the damage would be minimal. (P&G also fortified foods with additional vitamins and carotenoids, although it’s unclear how this would address the problem.) 

P&G also spent millions more running studies demanded by the FDA on the incidence of gastrointestinal distress. While the Center for Science in the Public Interest criticized their new studies as “designed not to find problems,” and independent studies still found high rates of diarrhea and gas, P&G’s new studies showed no such problems and compared complaints about diarrhea to the laxative effect of eating bran or other high-fiber foods. 

Lobbying also played a central role in P&G’s playbook. The Center for Science in the Public Interest contends that Procter & Gamble spent millions courting health officials through research grants and consulting fees.

By January 1996, when the FDA finally granted approval -- although with the asterisk that foods with olestra needed to have a warning that “Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools” -- the Center argues that of the members of the advisory committee that heavily influenced the decision, at least 9 of the 17 “yea” votes were food industry consultants. "The FDA staff members had already concluded that olestra was safe and were acting as proponents,” wrote a dissenting “no” voter. 

P&G was none too pleased with the ominous label demanded by the FDA. But the company could finally bring its long awaited blockbuster to market. 

Paradise Lost

In 1998, olestra hit stores nationwide in the form of P&G’s own fat free Pringles and Frito-Lay “Wow!” chips. Sales were high initially, but quickly fell from $400 million to $200 million between 1998 and 2000. By 2002, the Center for Science in the Public Interest felt confident enough to declare olestra “a moribund, if not totally dead, product.”

What doomed olestra? Health concerns kept olestra from ever receiving approval in Canada or much of Europe. In the United States, while many reported that olestra products tasted as good as the original, a chorus of people claimed it tasted inferior. Olestra products also came with a higher price tag.

The biggest problem, though, was the link between olestra and gastrointestinal distress. When Quartz wrote about olestra chips this year, the author asked “Remember Olestra? Those gut-wrenching chips from the 90s?”

The olestra story easily fits the narrative of a corporation pushing an unhealthy food despite health concerns. Lobbyists, special patent protections… the story writes itself. But no company wants to risk releasing a product that will garner feedback like the sugarless gummy bears. Gastrointestinal issues sank the product, hurting P&G’s bottom line. 

Like any good company, P&G ran trials of olestra chips before nationwide release. The company received thousands of complaints. The Center for Science in the Public Interest did as well, publishing consumer feedback as gruesome as the gummy bear reviews. “One 63-year-old Indianapolis woman,” the Center wrote, “ruined three pair of underwear and had no friends for two days after eating olestra chips." 

How did Procter & Gamble miss it? Or why did they not care?

Until the olestra story gets the Michael Lewis book treatment, we won’t know for sure. Procter & Gamble declined a request for an interview, and Haribo did not reply. 

Whether it was a blind spot or deliberate, the obvious reason is that P&G executives had a huge incentive not to find any problems with the product. With hundreds of millions of dollars and two decades of time invested, and the patent window closing, the pressure to win approval must have been immense. Further, while innumerable artificial, low calorie sweeteners exist today, olestra seemed at the time like the holy grail. In theory, olestra was going to have the same taste as fatty foods. And yet olestra was not fake fat -- it was delicious, decadent fat with no consequences. Products with olestra would still be loaded with fat even while advertised as diet food.

It’s possible that individuals at P&G fell for their own story. 

On one hand, the tiny sample sizes often used by P&G (when working on a product with a $1 billion per year potential, why run a study with a sample size of 50 people?) seems duplicitous. Yet many impartial observers found P&G’s story -- that health concerns were overblown and the FDA dragging its feet -- convincing.

Writing in The New Yorker in 2001, Malcolm Gladwell described olestra as “perhaps the most elegant solution” to the problem of fast food’s terrible health toll. He also made the argument repeated by P&G that concerns about diarrhea and the like were likely overstated -- diarrhea is a common problem in the U.S. and olestra’s effects are similar to fiber. Visiting a Procter & Gamble test kitchen in 1997, the Wall Street Journal’s Raju Narisetti said he had “eaten plenty of chips made with olestra to no ill effect” and found the food pretty good.

In 2011, a Purdue study hammered the final nail in the olestra coffin. It found that olestra incites weight gain by tricking the body into thinking it doesn’t need to metabolize fatty foods. Used to olestra fat without any calories, the body is surprised by the calories of the real thing.

The finding fits our current organic ethos; it would have surprised parents in the 1990s who regarded fat-free cookies and crackers as healthy. It’s only relatively recently that applying the laboratory to our food supply ceased to seem futuristic and be in vogue. Today, olestra has achieved immortality, just not in the way its inventors expected: in 2010, TIME Magazine ranked it as one of the 50 worst inventions of all time.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google PlusTo get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.


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