There is a very old and widespread fictional trope in which someone gets their deepest desires, but with ironic consequences. For example, a ghost might grant three wishes to a humble fisherman, but the wishes all make him shit himself. Or a harassed bookworm can finally get some rest to read after a nuclear explosion, but then he shits so hard that his glasses break. Well, by the 90s, Americans were more obsessed with dieting and weight loss than ever. So the nation was delighted when the FDA announced it had approved a miracle new fat substitute This could be used to make low-fat versions of deliciously unhealthy foods like potato chips.
It was called Olestraand oh boy, was there any bad news about it?
Olestra was actually invented in the 1960sby some well-meaning Procter & Gamble researchers trying to find a way to get underweight babies to fat quickly. They screwed this up so bad that they actually invented a new type of fat that the human body couldn’t absorb at all. The disappointed researchers were surprised to open the lab door moments later to find the entire Procter & Gamble board in gold suits and dollar sign glasses, an elaborately choreographed rendering of Barrett Strong’s “Money”. Because if the human body couldn’t absorb it, theoretically, humans could eat a whole range of fatty foods without gaining weight. And that’s the goddamn American dream baby.
Unfortunately, this glorious vision was held up by the gray-souled communists at the FDAwho were concerned about Olestra for three reasons. First, they hated fun. Second, they worried that a “fat-free” label would encourage the average American to cut down a whole wheelbarrow of junk food every morning, even though it was still very bad for you. And third, a small percentage of the test subjects reported that attempting to pass undigested globules of fat caused some slightly embarrassing problems in the bathroom, and some very embarrassing problems from it.
But the potential gains were too big and Procter & Gamble stayed until 1996 when the FDA stuck to it finally gave permission for Olestra as an ingredient in “savory snacks”. However, they insisted on one condition: all new products had to have a warning label stating that Olestra could cause abdominal cramps, fecal incontinence and loose stool. And stools are like wood wolves: an important part of the ecosystem certainly, but you really don’t want a loose one to show up when you turn out a bowl of french fries at a cocktail party. But Procter & Gamble believed they had a winning product. And the crazy thing is, they were right at first.