Slim down with scent?

Like almost every dieter in America, Wendy Bassett has used all sorts of weight-loss products. Nothing worked, she said, until she tried Sensa: granules she scatters on almost everything she eats, and which are supposed to make dieters less hungry by enhancing the smell and taste of food.

“Every time I touch a piece of food, I pour it on,” said Ms. Bassett, 34, an accountant in Tyler, Tex. She has been using Sensa since February. So far, she said, she has lost 30 pounds.

The maker of Sensa claims that its effectiveness is largely related to smell: the heightened scent and flavor of food that has been sprinkled with Sensa stimulate the olfactory bulb — the organ that transmits smell from the nose to the brain — to signal the “satiety center” of the hypothalamus. Hormones that suppress appetite are then released.

But can the manipulation of smell really lead to weight loss? A handful of niche products would have you believe just that.

In addition to Sensa, which has been available since last summer, there is SlimScents, aromatherapy diet pens filled with fruity or minty odors; a peppermint spray called Happy Scent; and the vanilla-doused Aroma Patch, which you wear on your hand, wrist or chest.

Last month, Compellis Pharmaceuticals of Cambridge, Mass., began human trials on a nasal spray designed to do the opposite of what Sensa does: to curb the appetite by blocking rather than enhancing smell.

“Eighty percent of what you perceive as taste is actually smell,” said Christopher Adams, a molecular biologist and the company’s founder. “The hypothesis is that if we can alter your sense of smell we can make food less palatable, because the hedonic effect — that is, the pleasurable effect you get from eating chocolate — won’t be there.”

Using smell to manipulate appetite may be an appealing premise, but only a few studies have been conducted, and some experts have doubts.

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© Abby Ellin, The New York Times, June 17, 2009:

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