There’s a very old and common fictional trope where someone gets their deepest desire, but with ironic consequences. For example, a genie might grant a humble fisherman three wishes, but the wishes all make him shit himself. Or a harassed bookworm finally gets some peace and quiet to read after a nuclear explosion, but then he shits himself so hard his glasses break. Well, back in the ’90s, Americans were more obsessed with dieting and weight loss than ever. So the nation rejoiced when the FDA announced they had approved a miraculous new fat substitute which could be used to produce low-fat versions of deliciously unhealthy foods like potato chips.
It was called Olestra, and oh boy was there some bad news about that.
Before long a solid percentage of Americans could no longer look their dry cleaner in the eye, while most gas stations just tossed a grenade into the bathroom at the end of the day and rebuilt in the morning. Meanwhile, the FDA was inundated with thousands of hilariously dry formal complaints, like the time a “37-year-old woman reported severe diarrhea, fecal urgency, and abdominal cramps after eating Original and Sour Cream and Onion Fat Free Pringles. She was driving when the pain started and could not get off the road in time to get to the bathroom before the diarrhea began. She had 5 children in her van who were frightened.” And in fairness most 10-year-olds would indeed be a little alarmed to observe a parent suddenly crap their pants so hard the car’s airbag goes off.
Olestra had actually been invented back in the 1960s, by some well-meaning Procter & Gamble researchers trying to find a way to quickly deliver fat to underweight babies. They screwed this up so badly that they actually invented a new kind of fat that the human body was completely incapable of absorbing. The disappointed researchers were surprised to pull open the lab door just moments later to find the entire Procter & Gamble board wearing gold suits and dollar-sign glasses, performing an elaborately choreographed rendition of Barrett Strong’s “Money.” Because if the human body couldn’t absorb it, then humans could theoretically eat a whole bunch of fatty foods without gaining weight. And that’s the goddamn American dream baby.
Sadly, this glorious vision was held up by the grey-souled communists at the FDA, who were concerned about Olestra for three reasons. Firstly, they hated fun. Secondly, they worried that a “fat free” label would encourage the average American to hork down an entire wheelbarrow of junk food every morning, even though it was still very bad for you. And thirdly, a small percentage of test subjects reported that trying to pass undigested globules of fat was causing some mildly embarrassing problems in the bathroom, and some very embarrassing problems out of it.
But the potential profits were too great and Procter & Gamble stuck with it until 1996, when the FDA finally gave permission for Olestra to be used as an ingredient in “savory snacks.” However, they insisted on one condition — the new products all had to have a prominent label warning that Olestra could cause abdominal cramping, fecal incontinence and loose stools. And stools are like timberwolves: certainly an important part of the ecosystem, but you really don’t want a loose one appearing when you put out a bowl of chips at a cocktail party. But Procter & Gamble were convinced they had a winning product. And the crazy thing is, they were initially right.