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Why Didn't The FTC Just Outright Ban Sensa?

by Alison Hudson

January 9, 2014

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Shocker! It turns out that Sensa, the "tastant" food additive that supposedly curbed cravings and led to weight loss, doesn't actually do what it's advertised to do!

At least, that's the finding of the Federal Trade Commission, following on the heels of a 2013 judgement by the State of California. The FTC came down on Sensa for making claims such as "clinically proven to help you lose 30 pounds without dieting," which they say were unsupported by evidence. The FTC has ordered that SENSA is
[H]ereby permanently restrained and enjoined from making, or assisting others in making, directly or by implication, including through the use of a product or program name, endorsement, depiction, or illustration, any representation that such product or program:

A. Causes or helps cause weight loss or any specific amount of weight loss;

B. Causes or helps cause rapid weight loss; or

C. Causes or helps cause substantial weight loss; unless the representation is non-misleading and, at the time of making such representation, Defendants possess and rely upon competent and reliable scientific evidence that substantiates
that the representation is true. For purposes of this Section, competent and reliable scientific evidence shall consist of at least two adequate and well-controlled human clinical studies of the Covered Product or of an Essentially Equivalent Product, or of the Covered Weight-Loss Program or of an Essentially Equivalent Weight-Loss Program, conducted by different researchers, independently of each other, that conform to acceptable designs and protocols and whose results, when considered in light of the entire body of relevant and reliable scientific evidence, are sufficient to substantiate that the representation is true.
As I read that, it seems to be saying, in essence, that the makers of Sensa cannot make any weight loss claim without actual science to support the claim. As of this writing, the Sensa website is still calling itself a "Weight Loss System" and calling for dieters to " use SENSA on everything you eat," though it looks as though specifics, like the 30 lb. claim which the FTC specifically targeted in their findings, have been scrubbed.

There's also a FAQ on the Sensa website about the FTC decision which attempts to spin things as positively as possible. My favorite part is this FAQ answer:
6. Does the SENSA work?

Yes. The safety of SENSA has not been questioned. SENSA's ingredients are Generally Recognized As Safe or GRAS under FDA standards. SENSA is sprinkled onto foods and designed to help users engage in proper portion control. We continue to work with leading researchers in the weight loss field to comply with FTC consent order requirements. SENSA encourages a healthy diet and exercise.
I love how, with the exception of the first word, nothing in that answer relates to the question of whether or not Sensa works. They instead shift it over to Sensa's safety, as if safety somehow equates to efficacy.

I'm not going to go into a lot of detail debunking these claims. The FTC already did that! Instead, let's answer the question I've seen in many a comments section, "But if it doesn't work, then why are they allowed to sell Sensa at all?"

The answer is, of course, that in the United States you're allowed to sell any dumb, useless crap you want as long as your marketing claims are vague enough. Sensa didn't violate the law by existing; it violated the law by overstating [okay, lying] about what the "tastants" could do and what evidence supported those claims. If they can make less specific, more subjective marketing claims about Sensa and still convince people to give them money, then it's "Yay capitalism!" and the FTC is fine with it.

Here's the tragic part: Sensa's brand image as a weight loss product probably already has enough momentum such that even without continued specific marketing, Sensa will still be able to peddle their overpriced flavorings to gullible dieters for some time. There are a few ways they can (and probably will) do this.

First, they can simply shift their pitch. Sensa can "make losing weight easier" by "making food more satisfying" when "combined with a healthy diet and exercise regimen." This is just what every other woo diet supplement out there does. We'll have to wait and see how far they actually go in moderating their claims going forward, though. My guess? They'll do as little as they can to just barely comply with the FTC ruling.

Second, the makers of Sensa could take the next obvious step: mass market sale. The FTC decision potentially weakens their brand image and message enough that suckering dieters into a 6-month sales contract at $60 a box might be difficult. But putting Sensa in every Wal-Mart in the nation for $11.95 a box? An easy sale to a consumer base who probably doesn't pay much attention to these kind of news stories anyway. Gone will be the home-and-purse matching shakers; instead, I predict they'll go the packet route, which would put Sensa on a level with Equal and Sweet & Low as convenient pre-packaged diet food additives.

Finally, there's the reformulation route. If they can't market Sensa, how about Sensa Advanced? This is a step they already appear to have been taking before this judgement came down. They claim it's a "reformulated mix" with a "new key nutrient." The addition? Chromium, a common alt-health diet supplement with dubious actual efficacy. But it allows them to make all new diet claims while still "complying" with the FTC ruling.

Honestly, companies like this bank on the fact that the fine never fits crime, at least the first time the FTC comes down. $26.5 million sounds pretty heavy, and it's the second largest fine the FTC has ever imposed on a company for false advertising. But considering that Sensa's sales for the last four years totaled more than $364 million, they're still getting away with consumer robbery. So while it is nice to see the FTC taking some action against these crap products -- they also smacked down three other diet products this week -- it's without question that this isn't going to stop the next diet hack with a marketing gimmick from selling his or her wares. It just might make them more cautious about how they frame their sales pitch.

by Alison Hudson

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