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Sensa Sensability —

September 4, 2013

Weight LossFat HealthFat ScienceDickweedDiet Talk

Trigger warning: This post is all about one particularly stupid weight loss product.

Smelling Cake

Enjoy it now… your husband just had White Castle.

Have you ever been about to dig into a great big slice of chocolate cake when somebody nearby suddenly squeezes out an SBD gas attack that completely destroys your ability to enjoy said cake?

The importance of smell cannot be overstated. Without your olfactory sense, food doesn’t taste as good. Your sense of smell also plays a powerful role in developing and retrieving memories. Scientists are even researching the connection between a poor sense of smell and neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

But leave it to American ingenuity to turn one of the most underrated of our senses into a get-thin-quick scheme.

By now, you’ve probably seen the ubiquitous ads for Sensa, which I’ve screen-capped for your enjoyment. Sensa specializes in those obnoxious square ads in the corner of your favorite blogs (possibly even ours, if you aren’t signed into WordPress), the ones you never click despite their attempts to lure women (always with the women) with teasers like “Drop 3 Dress Sizes?” and “Need to lose 30 lbs.?” and “Shake away 30 pounds” and the authoritative-sounding “Clinically proven. Average weight loss 30 pounds in 6 months.”

Clinically proven? Sign me up for some of that!

My favorite ad, by far, though, is this one:

Sensa Eat Yourself

There was some brief confusion when Sensa’s advertising team used an unfortunate comma:

Eat Yourself

Not really… just fucking with you.

And in my Biggest Loser weight regain roundup, I shared the story of Roger Shultz from season 5 who regained his TBL weight and became a Sensa spokesperson until that day when he regains the weight again (and considering he’s been MIA on Facebook since endorsing Sensa, I’d guess the odds aren’t in his favor).

How it works is you sprinkle Sensa on your food and the combination of maltodextrin, tricalcium phosphate, silica and other ingredients are supposed to curb your appetite so you eat less. The ultra-scientific explanation in Sensa’s FAQ says that its product “enhances the smell and taste of your food to help trigger the ‘I feel full’ feeling that tells your body when it’s time to stop eating.”


Like most weight loss gimmicks, rather than prove its claims, Sensa prefers celebrity endorsements, even if they are Z-listers like Shultz, Dayna Devon and Patti Stranger (who was Photoshopped within an inch of her life for Sensa). Then in 2012, Sensa snagged Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer as its latest shill. Sadly, that relationship has come crashing down, as Spencer is now suing Sensa for breach of contract. The  Hollywood Reporter shared details from the lawsuit, including Spencer’s contractual stipulations:

[S]he made it clear that she would only promote a “healthier lifestyle” and not significant weight loss. She says she passed up a $3 million offer from another weight loss company to take Sensa’s $1.25 million one (with an additional $100,000 going to charity) because the company agreed to various stipulations, including that the ad campaign wouldn’t focus on significant weight transformation, wouldn’t use before and after photographs and wouldn’t be placed in tabloid magazines or on gossip websites.

It seems like a weak attempt to limit the harm from endorsing a weight loss product, but Spencer should have known that sponsors have certain expectations for its product, particularly when we’re talking weight loss.

Spencer’s sponsorship didn’t pay off the dividends Sensa had hoped because “while some consumers recognized Spencer’s weight loss success, many did not recognize who she was or that she had lost weight.” Reneging on her stipulations, Sensa persuaded Spencer to do B&A photos and began publishing ads in the tabloids Ok! and Star.  When that failed to drum up business, Sensa sent Spencer a dismissal letter claiming she didn’t get approval for six sponsored tweets and that her #spon hashtag was a material breach of her endorsement contract, despite the fact that the FTC requires such disclosures from celebrity endorsements.

This isn’t Sensa’s first lawsuit. Recently, Sensa lost a $1 million false advertising lawsuit in California over the following unsubstantiated claims (PDF):

  1. That taking Sensa caused, assisted, or contributed to weight loss in human beings.
  2. That Sensa helps a person lose weight without dieting.
  3. That Sensa is clinically proven to help a person lose more than 30 pounds without dieting.
  4. That taking Sensa caused, assisted, or contributed to a person losing weight and getting a gym body without exercise.
  5. That taking Sensa caused, assisted, or contributed to a person losing weight without changing that person’s lifestyle.
  6. That taking Sensa helps a person control his or her hunger.
  7. That taking Sensa helps a person get more satisfaction from eating less.

Well, thank goodness Sensa was called to task and punished for lying. Now Sensa founder Dr. Alan Hirsch, a neurologist and psychiatrist, will be forced to honestly represent his product as a scam.

Except, here’s the front page from Sensa today, as they fend off generic competitors that claim they can help you stink your way skinny:

Sensa Imitators

Without skipping a beat, Sensa is back to overselling it’s dubious product. But you’ve gotta love when scammers break out the “Don’t trust the scammers” checklist.

But let’s set aside the lawsuits and the mock-worthy advertising claims, and instead let’s ask a simple question: does Sensa work?

Octavia Spencer got screwed over in her $1.25 million contract, but was Spencer’s enthusiasm even warranted in the first place?

The LA Times has a great piece debunking Sensa’s claims, including the following money quote:

The huge amount of weight that users can supposedly lose with the help of Sensa in just six months strains credulity, says Dr. Marc-Andre Cornier, an associate professor of medicine in the department of endocrinology, metabolism and diabetes at the University of Colorado Denver . “Losing 15% of your body weight — that’s usually what we see from gastric bypass surgery,” he says. “I’m extremely skeptical.”

It also includes a response from Hirsch, who says, “I always tell patients that the best way to lose weight is to exercise, but they never listen to me.” See? It’s not Sensa’s fault that consumers get the impression that Sensa will help you lose weight without exercise. I mean, where would they get that impression, apart from Sensa’s FAQ page:

Sensa Exercise

So what about these “clinically proven” claims that Sensa users can lose 30 pounds in six months? Where do they come from? Atomic Spin did some great legwork tracking down the actual studies. It turns out — surprise, surprise — that the clinical proof is clinical crap. None of the studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals, one of the studies was authored by Hirsch himself and the other by Sensa’s distributor. And the only information from either study are on promotional posters (PDF), which Atomic Spin takes down deftly:

[T]the papers do not give the distributions of weight loss. It’s all very good and well claiming that on average people lost on average 30 lbs, but unless you know what the spread is, it’s pretty useless. Did everyone lose 30 lbs, or did a few people lose 100 lbs and everyone else lose nothing?

Nor does it explain how the ‘control’ group was controlled. In Hirsch’s study, there was no placebo. As far as I can tell, the control group is simply a collection of obese individuals who had no particular intention to lose weight. The people who actually took Sensa on the other hand were people who definitely did want to lose weight. Given that a) participants actually had to pay $49 per month to take part in the 6 month trial and b) people weren’t weighed in the lab but instead simply reported their weights to the scientists at the end of the study,  there’s more than enough reasons for people to exaggerate their weight-loss to the researchers. Who wants to admit to wasting $300, after all?

Furthermore,  only 1436 participants out of 2437 actually completed the trial; over 40% dropped out. It’s reasonable to assume that people who did not lose weight would stop taking the Sensa – after all, they’re paying $49 per month for it! This would weed out anyone who did not find Sensa worked and, over time, you’d be left only with the people who did lose weight – whether that was due to Sensa or not. [emphasis mine]

I tracked down another paper by Hirsch from 1995 titled “Weight Reduction Through Inhalation of Odorants” (PDF). Its conclusions are predictably cheery:

Those subjects whose test scores showed they had good olfactory abilities and who use their inhalers frequently. ate 2 to 4 meals a day, felt bad about overeating, but did not feel bad about themselves lost nearly 5 pounds, or 2% of body weight per month. It appears possible that inhalation of certain aromas can induce sustained weight loss over a 6-month period.

The demographics contained are fascinating. The average subject was “a 43-year-old white woman. about 5’5″ tall with a medium-sized frame weighing 217 pounds and whose ideal weight was 129 pounds” (ideal weight was based on a basal metabolic rate chart). Just 13% of the subjects were married and 90% of subjects “complained of impaired sex life due to overweight.” Almost three-quarters of subjects “perceived themselves as unattractive or ugly” and just over half “hated themselves” and “felt dissatisfied with their lives.” And most shocking of all, 89% of subject claimed they had “family disharmony” as a consequences of the “effects of overweight.”

Go back and look at the ads above: they’re all targeted at women who fall into these demographics of loneliness and low self-esteem. This is why Octavia Spencer’s endorsement cannot be stipulated into a morally acceptable contract. Whether Sensa uses B&A photos, whether it advertises in National Enquirer, whether fans are clearly informed of the Sensa shill, Octavia Spencer was chosen to be a welcoming, trustworthy face for despondent, desperate women.

And who is successful with Sensa? Well, if you have a good olfactory sense and if you eat two to four meals a day and if you feel bad for overeating but love yourself anyway, then you might lose an average of 5 pounds per month, or 30 pounds after six months. The study says that “the amount of weight the subjects lost directly correlated with the frequency of their use of the inhalers,” but in this airtight study, subjects snorted Sensa anywhere from 3 to 48 times per day.  So, yeah, maybe if, every time you feel a hunger pain, you snort Dr. Hirsch’s magic skinny spray, you might lose your appetite, but is that really worth it?

Considering the failure rates of weight loss from actual peer-reviewed research, this softball Hirsch threw himself doesn’t tell us much, particularly when it comes to long-term success or adherence. In short, Hirsch (like so many before him) is a fraud peddling snake oil you snort and Octavia Spencer sold her good name and reputation to dupe those who are desperate to solve all the problems they have pinned on their bodies. Sensa was already willing to lie about “clinically proven” results, so it’s more than justifiable irony that Spencer has been deceived out of a lucrative pay day.

Perhaps Spencer will learn from this experience that if something smells rotten, don’t bite.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Kala permalink
    September 4, 2013 3:09 pm

    Oh man, that “study” was really something. Who does Hirsch think he’s fooling?

  2. vesta44 permalink
    September 4, 2013 6:34 pm

    Ya know, my mother told me years ago that “If it sounds too good be true, it’s probably a lie.” That could be said for every weight loss claim ever made.

  3. BBDee permalink
    September 4, 2013 8:20 pm

    I actually almost fell for the Sensa thing, since it was offered on a “free trial” basis, but I had a feeling that “free” would turn out to be anything but!

  4. September 5, 2013 9:55 am

    Wouldn’t it be cheaper and just as effective to stick a small rubber plug up one or both nostrils before sitting down to eat? I know my appetite takes a dive whenever I have a cold or a big-time allergy attack. Hey, I just saved myself a bundle! Go, Me! 😉

    • September 5, 2013 12:39 pm

      I once had a horrible upper respiratory infection, and I lost my sense of smell for almost a month. It was awful. I know that losing a sense such as sight or hearing would be worse, but believe me, it impacted my life to lose my sense of smell.

  5. September 5, 2013 12:37 pm

    Reblogged this on Sly Fawkes and commented:
    In other unsurprising news, Spin Doctors recommend Sensa!

  6. Dizzyd permalink
    September 5, 2013 6:16 pm

    A company that manufactures weight-loss snake-oil buffoonery is sued for false claims? Allow me to say – and I quote – “HA HA!” Seriously, I thought the point of the ad for Sensa was to say that if you sprinkle Sensa on your food, it would smell as if someone passed gas all over it. You could almost see the ads for it – “Now! Lose weight with Sensa! Makes your food smell like fart! You’ll never want to eat again.”

  7. Dizzyd permalink
    September 5, 2013 6:18 pm

    Oh! And I forgot – loooove the misplaced comma on the second ad! Makes it sound as if a good new option for people trying to lose weight is cannibalism.

  8. Dizzyd permalink
    September 5, 2013 6:24 pm

    You have to SNORT this stuff?! Good grief! Why don’t we just market cocaine as a “weight-loss supplement”? Just think, that way you can lose the weight and have fun while you’re at it! Wait…

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