The pressure group on Wednesday announced that it will be backing a Massachusetts consumer who plans to sue the company as a result of suffering severe gas and cramps after eating Frito Lay's Ruffles Light potato chips.
The 30-year-old consumer said she would not have purchased the product had she known it contained olestra, a fat replacer introduced by Procter & Gamble (P&G) in 1996 under its brand name Olean, and thought to be linked to a reduced absorption of important nutrients and certain abdominal symptoms in some consumers.
Consumer complaints of side effects associated with the product, such as abdominal cramping and loose stools, led the nation's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require that olestra-containing foods carry a warning label clarifying its presence and possible side effects.
But in 2003 the FDA dropped the label requirement, saying that new research revealed consuming olestra-containing chips resulted in a "minor increase in bowel movement frequency," but that these side effects were similar to those experienced when eating fruit or fiber. It concluded that consumer awareness of olestra's possible effects was high enough, and therefore considered the warning unnecessary.
According to the CSPI, after the labeling requirements were dropped, Frito Lay "quietly renamed" its olestra-containing 'WOW!' chips as 'Light'- a move the CSPI says was "designed to intentionally deceive people into thinking that the product was an entirely new olestra-free lower-calorie chip."
The move is "really tricking consumers," according to Steve Gardner, litigation director for the CSPI, which said it decided to take legal action after "many months of informal efforts to convince the company to take corrective action voluntarily."
"Changing name from WOW to Light reflects Frito Lay's duplicitous efforts to save a dying product, regardless of consumers' wellbeing. We hope the court requires Frito Lay to stop deception, to place prominent warnings on packages, and to sponsor television commercials and full-page newspaper advertisements to disclose the deception," said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson.
However, Frito Lay claims to have been "quite transparent" in the move to change the name.
"In fact, we took some extra efforts when we made the transition from Wow to Light. First we labeled the packaging with a sticker that alerted consumers to the change. And we also issued a statement, as well as carrying some elements from the Wow packaging over to Light- such as an Olean logo," Frito Lay director of public relations Aurora Gonzalez told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
In response to the lawsuit, the company said that since the FDA dropped its labeling requirements, "we are in fullcompliance with all FDA requirements."
"And one of the reasons the label was dropped was that research showed the effects of olestra were mild and infrequent. There are other foods, such as bran and fiber, that cause similar reactions in consumers," Gonzalez added.
And according to P&G, whose Olean is used in Frito Lay's Light chip products, "olestra has been studied for up to 30 years. It is one of the most researched food ingredients ever."
"As research has shown time and time again, the digestive changes associated with consuming Olean are not different from effects associated with other safe foods," said a P&G spokesperson.
But last week, the CSPI forwarded 396 new "adverse reaction" consumer reports regarding olestra to the FDA, bringing the number of reports sent since 1996 up to 3,753.
In one example of the reports sent, a 37-year-old woman who had eaten Doritos Light and Ruffles Light chips was admitted to hospital after suffering vomiting and diarrhea. Her symptoms lasted for two days and she required six bags of intravenous fluids, said the CSPI.
Frito Lay uses the fat replacer in its Doritos Light, Lay's Light, Ruffles Light and Tostitos Light. P&G also uses the ingredient in its own brand Fat Free Pringles.