The Potato Chips That Sent People Running to the Bathroom

Americans love junk food, and we continue to fool ourselves into thinking there’s some magical solution that will allow us to eat as much of it as we want without gaining weight. Yes, discipline and self-control are truly hard pills to swallow, so we’re always looking for someone to show us great-tasting fat-free food that doesn’t go straight to our hips. That’s exactly what happened in 1998, when Frito-Lay introduced Lay’s, Doritos, and Ruffles WOW Chips — fat-free chips made with olestra. At first glance, olestra seemed like a dieter’s dream. While it provided the satisfaction of tasting just like fat, its molecules were too large to be digested by the body, passing directly through the digestive tract unabsorbed. Sadly, the result was similar to that of a laxative — stomach cramps and diarrhea prevailed. Sales “exploded” at $347 million, making it the best-selling new product in the U.S. that year. However, given the media storm around the unpleasant side effects, sales dropped to $200 million by 2000. WOW Chips were quietly renamed “Light” products in 2004, and though it’s suspected that they were reformulated, olestra was still listed in the ingredients. What we learned from WOW Chips is this: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” The FDA warning label on the chips should have been enough to be a wake-up call. As for the lesson Frito-Lay learned: Never put your flagship brands in danger with a questionable ingredient. On the bright side, WOW Chips led to a proportional increase in toilet paper sales.