If Only It Were True

I live under a (nice mossy) rock, so I am pretty slow to hear about things that are all the rage. During the Superbowl, we were at a restaurant with TVs. (Unfortunately I saw a bit of Half Time and have had Madonna singing "Like a Prayer" in my head ever since... gah!)

Anyway, I saw a commercial for something called Sensa, a weight loss product that you sprinkle on your food. I noticed in the ad they didn't explain at all, so I wrote it down and looked it up later.

Now, the reason I'm writing this article is not necessarily to debunk Sensa exactly, but to talk about what went on in my head as I read their site. I am happy to call myself a skeptic, and I try to use critical thinking and reasoning whenever I can.

So first I went to the site that was in the ad: Sensa.com. The site has an embedded video with an anecdotal story from a TV personality, they offer a free trial, there are shiny pictures of people eating healthy foods, a seriously simplistic explanation of how it works, and several big red buttons to click to try it for free*.

There are a number of logical fallacies, your classic marketing, strewn about. But in the midst of the typical BS, there is a clinical study that is mentioned over and over. A few places scattered about different sites claim that the study was peer-reviewed (by the Endocrine Society?) but there is no mention of that paper on that site, and apparently that journal says they never did the peer review. I also read that the journal that apparently reviewed the study is partly run by Alan Hirsch, the creator of Sensa. Another red flag. So take all of that with a grain of salt!

So here are the findings: 100 control people did not use the Tastants. 1,436 men and women did. The control group lost an average of 2 lbs. The people in the treatment group lost an average of 30.5 lbs in 6 months, which was nearly 15% of their body weight.

This is really important. The participants were not required to change their normal diet or exercise. Also, they were told to stay on whatever diet they were on before they started.

Now, I had read the front of their site, and I found myself believing it. I noticed that I really wanted it to be true, it was all so shiny and wonderful, and there was a study, so it must be real!

Last year I lost 45 lbs through a radical diet plan (eat less, eat healthier and move a lot more.) But I was often hungry, and am even now for large parts of every day, which totally sucks. So I was thinking, I don't need to lose any more weight, but if this could help me feel full, I'd be so happy! And my husband Butch is still trying to lose weight. It could help him too!

I thought it was fascinating that I took everything at face value at first and believed the hype, the surface marketing. When I started reading other things that were red flags, I noticed that I tried to rationalize them! We all do this, I am pretty sure. You'd have to be a Vulcan to not rationalize something that you really wish were true.

The difference is, I didn't just order the stuff and disregard the red flags. I looked deeper and put my Critical Thinking cap back on.

So what are these Tastants I mentioned, and how does Sensa work? There are two kinds of tastants: one for sweet food and one for everything else. They supposedly enhance the smell and taste of food and activate a part of the brain that controls satiety. (I believe I read that it was activating the hypothalamus)

You sprinkle the tastant on every salad, burger, bowl of ice cream and apple you eat. Everything except liquids which apparently saturate the tastant crystals.

What are the magical ingredients in this miraculous shaker? Here is what their FAQs say: "Sensa contains Maltodextrin (Derived from Corn from the USA), Tricalcium Phosphate, Silica, Natural and Artificial Flavors. Sensa also contains Soy and Milk ingredients. Sensa is sodium-free, sugar-free, calorie free, gluten-free, and there are no stimulants, drugs or MSG."

I'm guessing the silica is a carrier, and Tricalcium phosphate is used in powdered spices as an anti-caking agent. Maltodextrin is an easily digestible starch, being absorbed as rapidly as glucose, and might be either moderately sweet or almost flavorless. It is used in many processed foods.

And what are the natural and artificial flavors? This would be the patent pending part of the formula.

In another place I've seen Carmine listed as an ingredient. Which is derived from insects and is used to dye foods red.

On the main site, Sensa is touted as being made from FDA-GRAS approved ingredients. GRAS stands for Generally Recognized as Safe. So it didn't have to go through testing. Because there's nothing special in there.

Basically, there's nothing in there except flavor and taste enhancers. So, if that is the case, is it really worth $45 a month plus shipping? Isn't that what sugar (or an artificial sweetener) and salt are? Why not just use more spices, herbs, salt and sweetener on your food for a tiny fraction of the cost and no gimmick?

Isn't that part of the Mediterranean diet and other diets that recommend fresh food? Don't they tell you to flavor your foods? That is a basic common sense approach to eating. Make it flavorful. But do the magical artificial and natural flavors in the shakers really do anything besides that?

The site says several times that you can eat whatever you like and that you don't have to exercise. But if you read underneath the three pictures of three users, under Gaylene, who lost 62 lbs, it says "Gaylene used Sensa for 18 months with a sensible diet." And under Tim, who lost 67 lbs, it says "Tim used Sensa for 9 months with exercise."

Then there's the slimy way they operate. On their site, when you go to leave, a chat window pops up and "Jenny" lowers the price of shipping to $1.95 (instead of $4.95) to encourage you to sign up. The offer lasts for 3 minutes.

If you read peoples' anecdotal experiences online, you find that many people tried to cancel in the 30 days, or after that, and found it incredibly difficult, and were charged not once, but twice for $89.90 before they were able to get out of the automatic payments and shipments. Returning the product is also incredibly difficult.

Oh, and on the main site, it lists different companies that are talking about Sensa. Of course, since the companies are not scientific journals with access to the actual research, what they say is virtually meaningless and an appeal to authority and the bandwagon fallacy.

But my favorite is what FoxNews said, "... could be a gift from the gods." Yes, that's hilarious!

What about this claim that you don't have to change your eating or exercising habits? In small print at the bottom of each page, the site says, "In addition to Sensa, Dr. Hirsch is a proponent for maintaining a healthy diet and exercise."

So basically if you eat healthy food and exercise, plus use Sensa you'll lose weight. Well, I did the first two and lost weight. So why spend $90 every two months?

Sure, if you actually eat half of what you did before, you will lose weight. I've tried just eating less before and have had friends do the same (one used Medifast) and you know what you lose? Mostly muscle.

But if you are still eating junk instead of real, healthy food, you are not going to be any healthier.

Also, many people don't actually eat until they're full. They eat well past that, or they eat for emotional reasons. They also eat when they are distracted. All of these reasons will not be cured by Sensa, even if it does what it says it does (which is dubious). If you eat for comfort, to alleviate boredom, or while watching TV, you need to address those issues, which Hirsch does not mention or encourage you to do.

There is only one tried and true method to lose weight, keep it off, and get fit. Eat less and move more. Especially eat less junk and make sure a lot of your food comes from fruits and veggies and other healthy foods. The best way to gain muscle (which helps boost your metabolism and burn more fat) is to lift weights (which is also good for your bones and strength!), and do aerobic exercise to help burn fat. (women really need to lift weights to keep their bones strong. And no, it won't make you bulk up. You will just get more lean. Don't believe the myth that you'll look like a man. You won't.)

We all want an easy fix, where we don't have to change our bad habits. But that's just not realistic. If you are overweight it probably took a long time of bad eating and little exercise to get to where you are. A magical shaker isn't going to fix that.

So what was the most important thing I learned? That I'm still just as susceptible to slick marketing as I was before I became a skeptic. That all of us will rationalize when we really want to believe something, even in the face of contradictory evidence. And that is when it's most important to be skeptical.


  1. One way those companies get the good before and after photos is to use people who are normally fit. They gain alot of weight quickly, but since this isn't their normal set weight their body hasn't adjusted to it yet. So they go back to their old routine and their body rebounds quickly. So they did lose the weight, but they are hardly the average user of this kind of product.


    1. Wow! Gerald I had no idea! That's so sneaky! Thanks for taking the time to share that. I hadn't thought of that!