The latest diet to hit the infomercial scene is Sensa, a “natural weight loss system” designed to help you eat less by changing your sense smell and taste. It appears to be a reincarnation of “The Sprinkle Diet” that got a lot of press a few years ago. Now it’s back and coming on strong. In fact, in Chicago I’ve heard radio ads that sound like they’re recruiting for a clinical trial using Sensa — offering to provide a free supply of the “sprinkles.” No dieting, no exercise required. Sounds too good to be true, huh?
So here’s how it’s supposed to work. You buy a month’s supply of the Sensa packets ($59.00) and sprinkle it on everything you eat. The flavorless “crystal tastants” are supposed to make you feel full faster by stimulating the part of your brain that tells your body it’s time to stop eating. The product claims to induce something called “sensory-specific satiety.” Sensa creator Dr. Alan Hirsch said it makes your brain think you’ve eaten more than you have and you’ll eat less and lose weight. What you eat doesn’t appear to matter. The trysensa web site features a big piece of pie a la mode with someone pouring on the sprinkles. Hmmm…what kind of message does that send?
Known as “Dr. Smell,” the Sensa creator Dr. Alan Hirsch is an interesting guy — he’s a neurologist, psychiatrist and founder of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. Dr. Hirsch has pioneered much of the research on smell, taste and appetite — and his studies were the subject of a Dateline NBC feature several years ago. It’s worth checking out…
His studies in the ’90s paved the way for Sensa. The first study was published in 1995 and the second study doesn’t appear to be published (only presented at a scientific meeting in Prague). Both studies are included on the web site in abstract form. The primary claim — people who sprinkled the tastant crystals on everything they ate lost an average of 30 pounds in 6 months, which was statistically significant more than those who did not use the sprinkles. The Web site boasts:
Sensa’s results beat Weight Watchers, Atkins and the Zone with more pounds lost in less time.
The product is starting to get more attention, including a recent article in the New York Times: A Slimmer You May Be A Whiff Away.
So what exactly is Sensa? The ingredients don’t look so magical. Actually, the packets contain similar ingredients to what you’d find in many processed foods…
- Maltodextrin (corn starch)
- Tricalcium phosphate (“bone ash,” a source of calcium used in supplements and fortification, also acts as an anticaking agent, so it probably helps the crystals not stick together)
- Natural and artificial flavors
- Artificial color yellow #5 (the second most widely used coloring that causes allergic reations, according to CSPI)
- Carmine (the red coloring obtained from insects)
There are some earlier studies that suggest maltodextrin may offer some satiety benefits (particularly when added to soup), but it surprises me that the sprinkles would have such a dramatic impact on fullness. People have such a hard time getting in touch with their hunger cues (and certainly don’t always stop when they’re satisfied), so it’s hard to think that the sprinkles can help overcome this. It’s great that people lost weight with the product, but I have some concerns:
- What did they learn? Those sprinkles are not helping you learn positive new behaviors, not helping you address the reasons you’re struggling with your weight.
- What about the quality of the diet? There’s basically no nutrition education involved with the program. You can eat all the junk you want, as long as you add the sprinkles.
- How long can this last? The program tells you to eat whatever you want. What’s going to happen when you stop using the sprinkles. Will you be sprinkle-dependent forever? What about long-term results, lifestyle changes?
- No exercise plan. Sensa proudly declares that you don’t need to exercise. So there’s no encouragement of daily physical activity.
- Your pocketbook. An additional $59.00 a month can add up quickly. I’d rather people spend the money on fresh fruits and vegetables, which have tremendous satiety value — and a lot more nutrients than you’ll find in maltodextrin.