Can Certain Scents Help You Lose Weight?

C H I C A G O, May 6, 2004 -- If you've been sampling all the trendy diets that have hit the U.S. market in the last few years, you probably think you've heard it all before.

But one doctor has got something new and sparkly up his sleeve and it has nothing to do with the low-carb movement that seems to be sweeping the nation.

Edible crystals that smell like cocoa, strawberry, raspberry and banana over food can change the way people eat, said Dr. Alan Hirsch, of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. The scent of the crystals has the effect of tricking the brain, he said.

"It fools your brain into thinking you've eaten more and thus you eat less," Hirsch said. "You can eat whatever you want to eat. You eat whatever you normally would eat. You'll feel full faster, you'll eat less."

Hirsch's hypothesis is that by sprinkling everything you eat with these calorie-free crystals — crystals that his lab has formulated to smell like certain delectable foods — we can trick our brains into thinking we've eaten more than we have. The crystals are not on the market, and are simply being researched at this point. But to simulate the research at home, Hirsch suggests adding spices, garlic, onion and any aromatic fruits and vegetables to your meals to make food more flavorful and aromatic.

The Nose Connection

According to Hirsch, taste is strongly perceived in the nose, or more specifically by the olfactory nerve, which he says is directly linked to the part of the brain that tells us we are full.

"By smelling the smells, their brain perceives: 'I've smelled it, therefore I've eaten it, therefore I better stop eating it. I've overeaten,'" Hirsch said.

The 12 different crystals or powders are divided into two groups: sweet crystals to put on sweet or neutral foods, and salty crystals to put on everything else. The sweet food crystals come in the flavors of cocoa, spearmint, banana, strawberry, raspberry and malt. The salty crystals come in the flavors of taco, cheddar cheese, parmesan cheese, ranch dressing flavor, horseradish and onion. While many medical scientists think these "sprinkles" sound too good to be true, Hirsch says that after six months of using them, 108 overweight patients — who weighed 197 pounds on average — lost an average of 34 pounds.

Donella and Regis Banks, a Chicago couple who are participating in the study, have just started using the sprinkles.

"I was actually shocked because I've been trying to lose weight — ever since I was in high school — so when I started losing weight, I couldn't believe it," said Regis Banks.

"Sometimes you don't even get to finish the entire meal," said Donella Banks. "It's not by choice, you know. Once you sprinkle and then you start eating, then you're full."

But Will It Work?

But even Hirsch says he's just beginning to investigate if the sprinkles will really work over the long term.

"It's possible that it had nothing to do with the sprinkles," Hirsch said. "Maybe the sprinkling reminded them not to eat. Maybe instead of making the food taste better, it made the food all taste the same, so they lost interest in the food."

With so many Americans trying to lose weight, many will try almost anything. Some medical experts say the flavor crystals are an interesting concept, but aren't so sure they will work.

Research supports the idea that taste, smell and flavor play a powerful role in stimulating and suppressing appetite, but the data in the flavor crystal study is too limited to draw conclusions, said Dr. David L. Katz, an associate clinical professor of public health and medicine at Yale University School of Medicine.

"Flavor crystals are an interesting approach, but unlikely to be the best," Katz said. "Do you really want to put cheddar cheese crystals on your oatmeal?" A study at Yale has indicated that some people are "super-tasters," with heightened responses to flavors, Katz said. Such eaters find it hard not to overeat, because food is such a pleasure. Salt in sweet food and sugar in salty food can also stimulate appetite, he said.

The study also does not address the fact that people eat for reasons that have nothing to do with taste, said Connie Diekman, the director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis.

"I'd like to see more studies, especially those done in people who eat just because," Diekman said.

Keith-Thomas Ayoob, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said he would like to see a longer-term study.

"Six months is about the max for demonstrating results of weight loss," Ayoob said. "After that, weight loss tends to level off."

Researchers also need to look at whether people will tire of the flavor sprinkles over time, he said.

Learn more about Hirsch's study and the The Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation at www.smellandtaste.org.