Getting fat off non-fat

A fat substitute with some unpleasant potential side effects pits junk food against junk science

Despite Jacobson's incendiary charges and publicity stunts, CSPI's anti-olestra campaign seems to be slowly melting under relatively low-intensity media scrutiny revealing methods often greased with hyperbole and disingenuousness.

In November 1997, CSPI distributed a news release announcing that talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell spiked a potentially lucrative Frito-Lay endorsement for WOW! chips. "CSPI applauds talk show host for her integrity and putting the health of her audience first," says the release. "Now Frito-Lay must find a more gullible figure to claim that these snacks, which already have probably sickened thousands of people, are safe to eat. Perhaps they should try Freddy Kruger."

But O'Donnell's refusal to sign on with Frito-Lay had nothing to do with her concerns over olestra's alleged deleterious health effects. According to a New York Post article published a few days after CSPI's release, she turned it down because of scheduling conflicts. Yet CSPI continues to trumpet O'Donnell's health-related rejection of Frito-Lay's offer on its World Wide Web site, claiming an unearned celebrity endorsement for its position.

"I don't care if [the release] is on or if it's off," explains Jacobson. "Let's say it's not true. In one way, the Web is history and one could argue that organizations should leave a public record of everything they've done and said."

"You'd think he'd want to protect himself from these allegations and take it down," says Jeff Stier of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a consumer-education organization that staged a news conference during last week's FDA hearings criticizing CSPI's tactics. "How cavalier is this guy?"

CSPI seems to craft its methods for collecting data to ensure results supporting its point of view. The organization posts an olestra report form on its Web site that asks respondents if they suffered gastrointestinal problems after consuming olestra snack foods. If they have, the form asks them to classify as mild, moderate, or severe (there is no "none" category) instances of flatulence/gas, cramps, yellow-orange stains in underwear, diarrhea, loose stools, greasy stools, oil in toilet, nausea, vomiting, bloating, and fecal urgency. The Web site states, "All reports are forwarded to the U.S. FDA" without identifying information.

But Jacobson admits he discards all responses that report no adverse effects. "These are adverse-reaction reports," he defends. "The FDA is not interested in getting compliments on the taste of a potato chip." The FDA concurs they are primarily interested in adverse-reaction incidents. Still, the structure of the query almost guarantees respondents will parrot ills CSPI attributes to olestra.

Jacobson also says he discards prank reports. What kind? Jacobson says one young man reported olestra had impaired his ability to drive a car. "We called to confirm it, and he admitted that he just made it up," Jacobson says.

But it's odd that such a response would prompt the organization to investigate. One CSPI document warns of the potential adverse impact olestra could have on the nation's highways. "Gastrointestinal disturbances are not normally life-threatening, but they can be very inconvenient, unpleasant, uncomfortable, and worrisome...Think of the driver of a giant 18-wheeler barreling down the highway at 70 miles per hour when he gets hit with a bout of fecal urgency."

The same document warns that olestra might shred the self-esteem of children. "Although underwear staining and anal leakage do not endanger consumers' physical health, those phenomena could cause psychological problems, including feelings of embarrassment and insecurity. Children and teenagers, especially, are likely to be disturbed about having dirty underwear, fearing embarrassment in front of friends and family. Snacking should be a pleasure undiluted with problems like dirty underwear."

The Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), an organization that seeks to improve public understanding of numerical data, accuses CSPI of "priming the pump" and skewing results in favor of its positions when gathering olestra data. CSPI was highly active in early 1996 when the FDA approved olestra, warning consumers of gastrointestinal disaster if they dared munch a bag of fat-free chips. The campaign was so effective, Frito-Lay began receiving calls from consumers in its three Midwestern test-market cities before the product ever reached store shelves.

Once the product hit the market, the organization began running ads with descriptions of associated digestive horror and an 800 number to call. "We had really rabid TV commercials in test markets," says P&G's nutritionist Dr. Suzette Middleton. CSPI commissioned a market study amid the market test and the anti-olestra ad campaign and announced its results--which not surprisingly showed a 20 percent adverse reaction incidence among those who tried the chips--at a Washington news conference.

"The CSPI committed a classic case of the logical fallacy known as 'after that, therefore caused by that,'" says STATS.

But Frito-Lay is not above dispersing misleading information either. In the company's press releases, it repeatedly touts a WOW! chip consumer complaint level of 0.00002 percent--about one complaint for every 50,000 consumers sampling the chips. But according to P&G, the statistic represents one complaint per every 50,000 one-ounce servings, not per every 50,000 people, significantly deflating the positive impact of the statistic.

The actual consumer complaint level appears to be sizable. ABC News has reported that the number of olestra complaints to the FDA represents the most ever received for a food additive (as of June 19 it had received 6,647). The FDA disputes this though, saying they don't track their data in such a way that makes these comparisons possible. The FDA's George Pauli says there is a strong direct correlation between the number of complaints the agency receives and the level of publicity warning of a product's ills. "To look at numbers without knowing which, if any, of the events is accurate will tell you probably more about people's motives for reporting, mainly because they were told something might be the cause of a problem."

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