TV host and jewelry expert Carol Brodie watches her weight religiously. So when she heard about a 15-calorie per serving product called “Better Than Pasta,” she bought it.
“If I ate three or four bags of this, I was still looking at around 100 calories, so how great is that?" Brodie told NBC New York. "And I was going to get to fill up!”
But Brodie says her diet dream became a gastric catastrophe — in a hurry.
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According to a federal lawsuit filed this month, Brodie was hospitalized after eating four packages of Better Than Pasta last summer. The complaint says she developed a “congealed mass of noodles” that blocked her digestive tract, forcing her to remain on a liquid diet “consisting entirely of Diet Coke and soup for longer than a month.”
“Every time I felt like my body was trying to get rid of it, that big mass would just hit so nothing could come out,” Brodie said. “It felt like I was dying, like I was choking to death.”
Brodie’s attorney, Rosemarie Arnold, says the makers of Better Than Pasta, a Wisconsin company called Green Spot Foods, should have known the product carried a substantial risk of serious digestive problems – partly because there are numerous complaints on Amazon, the platform on which Brodie purchased the noodles.
“When you swallow it, it doesn’t dissolve in your stomach and that’s why it was able to keep you full for so long,” Arnold said. “This company knew that this product was not safe to consume but they put it on Amazon.”
Brodie’s lawsuit also accuses Amazon of putting consumers at risk by allowing Better Than Pasta to be sold on the platform. A spokesman for Amazon declined to comment on the lawsuit. Better than Pasta has a 3.5-star rating on Amazon, but the I-Team found multiple consumers who wrote reviews echoing Brodie’s complaint.
“I was up all night (like many of the other 1 star reviewers) with severe stomach aches and pains,” wrote one shopper.
“It felt ‘stuck,’ like a rock, right at my epigastric area,” wrote another.
A third reviewer wrote, “this product caused some unholy levels of gastric upset and rage.”
The I-Team sent several emails and left several voice messages for Green Spot Foods, but did not immediately hear back.
Better Than Pasta noodles are made of organic konnyaku flour, also known as konjac flour. The ingredient is derived from a Japanese root that is not digestible by humans. The Food and Drug Administration considers konjac to be safe and even approved a petition last month allowing food producers to market the substance as a source of dietary fiber.
George Salmas, the food consultant who wrote the FDA petition seeking approval to classify konjac as dietary fiber, said the ingredient can help manage weight and cholesterol. But he acknowledged eating too much of it could cause problems.
“Any dietary fiber can provide health benefits but if you eat too much of it or almost anything there can be bad side effects,” Salmas said. “When you look at the amount of konjac that’s eaten in the U.S. and the number of problems that arise, I think the problems are a tiny, tiny percentage.”
An FDA spokesman sent the I-Team an email standing behind the health and safety of konjac.
“FDA has long regarded the konjac tuber, as well as the flour produced from it, as safe, with a long history of use,” the statement reads. “To our knowledge, the FDA has not received any serious adverse effects reports related to this ingredient.”
Though few official complaints about konjac have been registered with the FDA, there’s at least one other known hospitalization after a woman in Australia ate diet Konjac noodles two years ago.
According to Dr. Michael Ben-Meir, director of the emergency department at Cabrini Hospital in Melbourne, the middle-aged patient ate a single package of the noodles and suffered a 10-day bout of vomiting and nausea. It’s not clear what brand of konjac noodles the patient consumed, but Ben-Meir said they formed a hardened gastric obstruction that had to be surgically drilled into to break up.
“Her stomach was about seven times the size of a normal stomach,” Ben Meir said. “There probably needs to be some warnings for this.”
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an FDA watchdog group, has called konjac a “fake fiber” and suggested the research supporting health benefits is thin. Laura MacCleery, CSPI policy director, said the approval of dietary fiber claims could encourage food producers to inject konjac into more products like yogurts and nutrition bars – prompting more consumption of the Japanese root, and possibly more upset stomachs.
“We warned the FDA back when it was considering adding these fake fiber claims that this was the kind of thing they would see in the marketplace in foods and we’re sad to be right about that,” MacCleery said.
Brodie says she wants the FDA to place a label on konjac products warning that eating too much could cause gastric blockages. The FDA says it has no plans to do that.
“I’m not the first one that this happened to,” she said. "And I’m not going to be the last.”