The Great Olestra Experiment

Steven C. Owens
9 min readFeb 24, 2021


How the fatty oil substitute Olean “exploded” on the snack scene then disappeared!

Fat Free Chips fried in Olean rather than standard frying oil with 1/2 the calories but all the side effects.

Olestra treated products became a $400 Million dollar business in 1998 as Time magazines 50 worst inventions ever created. Like the “New” Coke debacle of 1985 a product that saw so much promise fizzled horribly as quickly as it rocketed to fame. Luckily both Frito Lay and Coca cola were able to survive the consumer hurricane pivoting away from the “Madmen” campaign mistake for different reasons. “New Coke had consumer backlash as they were partial to the old recipe for the cola favorite. Frito Lay jumped out off the Olestra snack foods due to noticeable side effects on the stomach and lack of vitamin absorption.

New Coke was not all the rage-just caused rage among loyalists to Original Coke

The Original Sin

The bible talks about “original sin” regarding Adam and Eve and temptation for more (in Adam and eve’s case the forbidden fruit). Temptation to not only beat Pepsi but to embarrass them was never more evident than in 1985 when the executives at Coca Cola decided to change the coveted recipe of their lovable cola to something like Pepsi but with the Coke flare. Despite performing an extensive taste test with hundreds of customers, who overwhelmingly indicated that they loved the new recipe, “New” Coke was a colossal failure! Talk about dying on the runway!

New Coke never got off the runway!


The collateral damage of New Coke was palpable. The executives at Coca Cola went quickly into damage control. But first we go to the press conference introducing the new and improved taste of a 100 year old recipe.

Press Conference for New Coke

On April 23, 1985, Coca-Cola Company chairman and CEO Roberto Goizueta stepped before the press gathered at New York City’s Lincoln Center to introduce the new formula, which he declared to be “smoother, rounder, yet bolder — a more harmonious flavor.” The press, however, said what Goizueta couldn’t admit: New Coke tasted sweeter and more like Pepsi.

“Some may choose to call this the boldest single marketing move in the history of the packaged-goods business,” Goizueta said. “We simply call it the surest move ever made.” Coca-Cola president Donald Keough echoed the certainty: “I’ve never been as confident about a decision as I am about the one we’re announcing today.”

While Goizueta and Keough toasted each other with cans of New Coke, the news was already beginning to fall flat. On the New York Stock Exchange, shares of Coca-Cola dropped, while those of its rival rose. Pepsi gave its employees the day off and declared victory in full-page newspaper advertisements that boasted, ‘‘After 87 years of going at it eyeball to eyeball, the other guy just blinked.’’

New Coke left a bitter taste in the mouths of the company’s loyal customers. Within weeks of the announcement, the company was fielding 5,000 angry phone calls a day. By June, that number grew to 8,000 calls a day, a volume that forced the company to hire extra operators.

“I don’t think I’d be more upset if you were to burn the flag in our front yard,” one disgruntled drinker wrote to company headquarters. At protests staged by grassroots groups such as “Old Cola Drinkers of America,” consumers poured the contents of New Coke bottles into sewer drains. One Seattle consumer even filed suit against the company to force it to provide the old drink.

The outrage caught Coca-Cola executives by surprise. They had hardly made a rash decision unsupported by data. After all, they had performed 190,000 blind taste tests on U.S. and Canadian consumers. The problem, though, is that the company had underestimated loyal drinkers’ emotional attachments to the brand. Never did its market research testers ask subjects how they would feel if the new formula replaced the old one.


Coca Cola Executives appealed to the public and reverted back to the original recipe

Seventy-nine days after their initial announcement, Coca-Cola executives once again held a press conference on July 11, 1985 — this time to announce a mea culpa and the return of the original formula, which hardly had time to gather dust in its Atlanta bank vault, under the label “Coca-Cola Classic.” “Our boss is the consumer,” Keough said. “We want them to know we’re really sorry.” The news was so momentous that television networks broke into normal programming with special reports.

Re-branded as Coke II

Coca-Cola Classic quickly outsold New Coke and within a few months had returned to its position as the top-selling sugar cola, ahead of Pepsi. The company rebranded the new formula “Coke II” in 1990 before it was eventually abandoned in 2002. In spite of the blowback, Coca-Cola emerged from the fiasco with its market position actually strengthened as consumers rediscovered their attachment to the iconic brand. (Moreover, in 2019, Coca-Cola actually re-released a very limited run of New Coke.)

“The simple fact is that all the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people,” Keough admitted. The blunder was so colossal that some thought it must have been an intentional marketing gimmick.

“Some cynics say that we planned the whole thing,” Keough said. “The truth is we’re not that dumb and we’re not that smart.”



Olestra was not as healthy as it first sounded. It has been shown to cause gastrointestinal symptoms including abdominal discomfort, flatulence, and changes in stool consistency. More importantly, it interferes with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins from food when present in the small intestine at the same time as other foods. Because it is nonpolar, Olestra can dissolve fat-soluble vitamins. Hence, Olestra in the small intestine competes with fat-containing micelles in the intestine for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Anything the Olestra absorbs is carried out of the body with it and is therefore not available for absorption by the body. Adding more fat-soluble vitamins to food containing Olestra seems to be effective in preventing Olestra from depleting the body’s supply of fat-soluble vitamins. However, long-term studies are not yet conclusive on the effects of continued ingestion of Olestra on humans.

As mentioned earlier following their national launch in 1998, the WOW® chips were initially successful, raking in sales in excess of $400 million US Dollars (USD). However, due largely to reports of certain unpleasant side effects that were subsequently listed on a health warning label on the product as mandated by the FDA, sales dropped sharply. Sales were cut in half by year 2000 to $200 million. Although the intestinal side effects, which became commonly known as “anal leakage” in the media, occurred only as a result of over-consumption, it was enough to tarnish the product’s reputation and diminish consumer appeal. Citing further studies, the FDA decided that the warning label wasn’t warranted and approved its removal despite complaints numbering over 20,000 regarding side effects. It has also been proven since the time of the original studies that Olean® has no impact on the body’s ability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins.

Olestra, under the brand name Olean®, is still used primarily as a fat substitute in the manufacture of certain savory snack foods including Lays® Light Potato Chips, Doritos® Light Snack Chips, Pringles® Light Potato Crisps, Ruffles® Light Potato Chips, and Tostitos® Light Tortilla Chips. The FDA declared Olean® as “Generally Regarded As Safe” (GRAS) in late 2008 for use in the production of prepackaged, ready-to-eat cookies using Olean® BakeLean. BakeLean products are proprietary blends of Olean® and vegetable oils used as a substitute for butter, margarine, and shortening in the manufacture of baked goods, reducing the calories and fat content of the end product by 75%. Olean® is not approved for use or sale in Canada or the European Union. That should tell you all you need to know about Olean.

European countries are hyper sensitive to chemical substitute in their food and drinks. Stevia a natural plant sweetener were being used in their products long before the United States allowed the same.

Stevia and steviol glycosides have a long history of safe use in several countries, including Japan (since 1971) and Paraguay. Stevia sweeteners are approved for use in over 60 other countries, including Korea, Mexico, Taiwan, China, Russia, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, Brazil and Malaysia.

In the early 1970s, sweeteners such as cyclamate and saccharin were gradually decreased or removed from a variant formulation of Coca-Cola. Consequently, use of stevia as an alternative began in Japan, with the aqueous extract of the leaves yielding purified steviosides developed as sweeteners. The first commercial Stevia sweetener in Japan was produced by the Japanese firm Morita Kagaku Kogyo Co., Ltd. in 1971. The Japanese have been using stevia in food products and soft drinks, (including Coca-Cola), and for table use.

In 2006, Japan consumed more stevia than any other country, with stevia accounting for 40% of the sweetener market.

In the mid-1980s, stevia became popular in U.S. natural foods and health food industries, as a noncaloric natural sweetener for teas and weight-loss blends. The makers of the synthetic sweetener NutraSweet (at the time Monsanto) asked the FDA to require testing of the herb. As of 2006, China was the world’s largest exporter of stevioside products. In 2007, the Coca-Cola Company announced plans to obtain approval for its Stevia-derived sweetener, Rebiana, for use as a food additive within the United States by 2009, as well as plans to market Rebiana-sweetened products in 12 countries that allow stevia’s use as a food additive.


Fat is Good!

So what have we learned about artificial sweeteners and fat? Synthetic anything is not good for your body but yet the Human Race (especially Americans) are always looking to eat really badly without paying the immediate consequences (fat gain). Listen, I am all for trying to find great tasting food that has no fat or calories with no ill effects on the body. It just doesn’t exist. As long as we crave for the “magic pill” or “magic fat substitute” companies will do everything they can to make that first buck from your pocket? They do not care if it kills you now or in 20 years.

In the last ten years diets like Atkins and Keto have taken over the world. Now Fat is back! Fat is good much like “greed is good” on Wall Street. To Atkins credit they have always maintained that fat and no or low carbs help you lose weight. Atkins first gained popularity in in the 1970’s along with the Pritikin Diet and Grapefruit or Beet Diet. Remember those? How about the Scarsdale Diet? I lost 30 pounds myself on the Atkins Plan. Tough to maintain long term but the Keto craze has made Atkins think twice and make their diet a little healthier. Nothing wrong with good ole American competition to check each other against the boards (hockey Reference).

Olestra and New Coke enter the Food Hall of Shame of failed attempts at understanding what consumers want and failure to deliver. However, they both made quick recoveries with only temporary loses to their profit margin. Isn’t that what really matters to them anyway?



Steven C. Owens

Writer of life lessons sprinkled with meaningful sports and history editorials.