Those gut-wrenching Olestra chips from the ’90s might have been good for us

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Not just delicious.
Not just delicious.
Image: Frito-Lay

Remember Olestra? The molecule has the same taste and mouthfeel as regular fat, but your intestines can’t absorb it. That means delicious, satiating potato chips that essentially slide right through you. Olestra, which was marketed under the brand name Olean, was a dieter’s dream when it was marketed in the 1990s, during the low-fat craze.

It was also a massive pain—in the gastrointestinal area, to be precise. It became notorious for its warning of “abdominal cramping and loose stools.” But a new study has found that Olestra might actually be good for you, at least in one way: it could help rid your body of a dangerous toxin.

Like any 1990s child-of-the-calorie-conscious, I ate a lot of Wow! chips growing up. I still have the phantom stomach pains, and I still miss those damn chips. We now know that the fat substitute, which lost most of its popularity during the late 90s (sales dropped from $400 million in 1998 to $200 million in 2000), doesn’t actually help you lose weight. Lay rebranded Wow! chips as “Light” products, presumably to get away from the bloat of negativity surrounding the additive.

A study (paywall) lead by Ronald Jandacek, an adjunct professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at University of Cincinnati, presents one possible benefit of the fake fat (other than utter deliciousness, that is). Patients with high levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a man-made chemical and known carcinogen, were fed either regular Pringles or those containing Olestra. After a year, concentrations of PCBs in the body decreased significantly faster for the Olestra group than they had the year before—an increase eight times greater than the control group, who ate regular Pringles.

PCBs are hard to get rid of, because they’re easily absorbed into human fat. Presumably, Jandacek said, Olestra tricks some of the PCBs into attaching to it instead. Then those molecules leave the body. Unfortunately, as many consumers still remember, they sometimes leave rather explosively.