INDIANAPOLIS -- The controversy surrounding olestra hasn't stopped sales of snacks made with the fat substitute from selling briskly in this test market.
Mike Bracken, store manager of a Cub Foods Stores unit in Castleton, Ind., which along with a Kroger Co. unit in Fishers, was literally wrapped in WOW! packaging, said sales have been surpassing expectations.
"The olestra snacks started out really well because [the manufacturers] flooded the market with heavy advertising. Sales have slacked off somewhat, but we are still selling on average 50 cases a week," he told SN.
The Hoosier State capital and its environs has become the nation's largest test market for snack foods made with olestra, a fat replacement made by Procter & Gamble from soybeans and cottonseed.
Marketed under the brand name Olean, olestra tastes and cooks like regular fat, but adds no fat or calories to food because the fat molecules are too large to be absorbed by the body. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, is opposed to the fat substitute because it inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and can lead to abdominal cramping and loose stools.
Procter & Gamble, Frito-Lay and Nabisco are currently testing olestra versions of some of their most popular lines. Frito-Lay's WOW! line of Lay's and Ruffles potato chips, Tostitos tortilla chips and Dorito's are being sold throughout central Indiana, while P&G's fat-free Pringles are being tested in Indiana and Columbus, Ohio. Nabisco is testing fat-free Wheat Thins and Ritz Crackers in Grand Junction, Colo., and Marion, Ind., a town with a population of 32,000 situated midway between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne.
The Frito-Lay products had been test marketed from April 1996 until February 1997 in Grand Junction and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, under the Max name.
"Both the Frito-Lay WOW! chips and fat-free Pringles are doing pretty well. We are getting repeat purchases," said Tom Strack, grocery buyer at Mr. D's Food Markets here.
Bracken of Cub Foods said both the WOW! and fat-free Pringles products are selling well and have actually boosted total salty snack department sales. The WOW! products are being merchandised on a special display that consists of a full endcap.
"We're up with all Frito-Lay in the store," he said. "The WOW! and fat-free Pringles products have caused somewhat of a tradeoff from the traditional lines."
Dave Stis, business development manager at Frito-Lay's Indianapolis office, said the two supermarkets were wrapped for around nine days, with a vinyl that is used on billboards. About 88 gallons of paint were used at each store to create the graphics. The stunt was done to make shoppers say "Wow" when they entered the parking lot.
"The product in the market is doing really well. The category has responded extremely well to it," Stis said.
Many industry watchers believe olestra has the potential to radically shape the supermarket industry as it enters the next century.
"Olestra can be the biggest thing to hit the food industry since the advent of frozen foods," said Ken Harris, a partner in the Evanston Ill., office of Cannondale Associates, a Wilton, Conn.-based consulting firm.
Down the road, Harris sees olestra being used in everything from cake mixes to fried chicken.
"Based on what is going on in Marion, people are enamored with the product," Harris said, adding that he believes the health risks often mentioned with olestra-based products have been "overplayed," and he sees P&G's Olean brand of olestra as going through the same scenario as NutraSweet artificial sweetener.
"In the future, the word 'Olean' on a package will have the same impact as NutraSweet did when it was introduced. People will be looking for it," he said.
Jeffrey M. Hill, managing director, Meridian Consulting Group, Westport, Conn., said olestra will become a major factor if the government allows it to be used in other products. "Olestra has the potential to be one of the single greatest impacts on the food industry over the next 10 years," he said.
Becky Yaeger Kimbell, a spokeswoman for Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co., said more widespread distribution of snacks made with Olean should begin sometime next year, once P&G's new olestra plant in Cincinnati is up and running in early 1998.
Yaeger Kimbell characterizes olestra as doing "extremely well." In test markets Olean snacks have replaced more than 100 tons of fat, which is more than a railroad car full, and saved consumers over a billion calories, she said.
But not everyone is enamored with olestra.
In addition to the CSPI's much publicized stance against olestra, Whole Foods Market, an Austin, Texas-based natural-food supermarket chain -- which doesn't operate stores in Indianapolis -- has come out against olestra on its home page web site. An article written by Margaret Wittenberg, Whole Foods' communications specialist team leader, entitled "What's Wrong with Olestra," declares "Whole Foods Market will not accept products made with olestra for several reasons."
In addition to citing concern over olestra depleting the body of fat-soluble vitamins, including A, D, E and K, as well as carotenoids, which are antioxidants, Wittenberg writes, "We need to get beyond the tunnel vision with fear of fat. While it's prudent to keep fat to a moderate level, no more than an average of 30% of total calories, trying to eliminate fat entirely or keep it to an extremely low level in one's diet simply is not healthy."
But retailers in the test markets contacted by SN have said they have received few, if any, customer complaints.
"We have not gotten any negative feedback about fat-free Pringles," said Karen Bennett, director, consumer affairs, Big Bear Stores, Columbus, Ohio.
"The fat-free Pringles are doing very well. We have had a positive response from our customers about them. We definitely see an interest in people wanting to be able to buy them," Bennett said, adding that they are merchandised in line with the regular salty snacks.
Dave Pegg, store manager at a Marsh store in Marion, said he hasn't heard anything negative back from his customers about the olestra products.
A store level associate at REMS Food, Rockville, Ind., said shoppers have been asking for olestra snacks.
Ann Smith, a spokeswoman for Nabisco, East Hanover, N.J., said test marketing of the fat-free Wheat Thins and Ritz Crackers began in late April and is expected to continue for six to 12 months.
Lynn Markley, director, public relations, at Frito-Lay's Plano, Texas, headquarters, said since February more than 9 million servings of WOW! products have been sampled in 3,000 locations across central Indiana.