We eat for many reasons: for our health, to feel comfort, to be social–but once we start, sometimes it’s hard to stop. Diet gurus often talk about how eating mindlessly has contributed to our country’s obesity epidemic. So, when I got wind of a new line of dessert lozenges that claims to offer physical and psychological cues to slow you down so you won’t binge eat, I was curious and admittedly skeptical.
Mark Bernstein, a San Francisco-based lawyer and entrepreneur, came up with the idea for MealEnders when his doctor suggested that he lose 5 to 10 pounds at his yearly checkup. Bernstein had never considered himself to be overweight, and he was surprised by how hard it was to keep his portions in check. “I just couldn’t stop myself. I recognized that for me one cookie became three cookies, or a handful of chips became a bagful of chips,” he says.
“I started thinking, boy, if I could create something to help someone to just stop eating, that would be a great product,” says Bernstein. “When I shared my challenge with my mother, she responded, ‘Just go brush your teeth.” That comment, a common tip for marking the end of a meal, prompted Bernstein to look into rituals that interrupt the pattern of overeating. “I sort of deconstructed that and said, ‘What is that? Is that a sensory effect? Is that a behavioral effect, is that psychological?’”
Bernstein had no previous experience in the food industry, so he consulted with scientists, weight loss experts, and psychologists. “At first, I self-funded the venture,” he says. In 2012 Bernstein hired Mattson, a prominent food research and development firm, to conduct an in-depth analysis and create the final product. Bernstein was encouraged by how the new “signaling lozenges” were received by consumers in a month-long, in-home use test. “Then I turned to the angel community and friends and we quickly raised about a half a million dollars,” he says.
The 15-calorie lozenges come in four flavors: chocolate mint, cinnamon, citrus and mocha. They have a sweet outer coating or “reward layer” on the outside, and “active-taste layer” on the inside, which contains a proprietary blend of natural and artificial flavors that trigger a cooling, tingling sensation.
The idea is to pop in a lozenge when you feel about 80 percent full, and let it dissolve in your mouth for about 20 minutes—the amount of time it takes your brain to realize that your stomach is full. MealEnders claim that their Actissert blend engages the trigeminal nerve as you suck on the lozenge, keeping the mind occupied while the hormone that determines satiety kicks in.
Dr. Sherry Pagoto, associate professor of medicine at UMass Medical School, is not so sure about the MealEnders concept. “I don’t see any evidence to show that their formula actually impacts satiety and appetite hormones,” says Pagoto. “Eating something small that’s sweet is certainly better than eating something big that’s sweet, so it’s not a terrible idea—but I don’t know how this lozenge is any different than just having a hard candy,” she says.
Bernstein has not yet commissioned any clinical studies, but he said that he’s gotten positive feedback from professionals in the nutrition industry. “At it’s core our product is a food, and like other foods people can decide rather instantly whether they like it, whether it tastes good, whether it helps them to not want to eat more,” says Bernstein.
Pagoto has concerns about the ingredient list, such as the inclusion of hydrogenated oil. Bernstein emphasizes that MealEnders are not a stimulant or supplement, and the amount of hydrogenated oil is negligible. “We’re a lean startup, so we haven’t spent millions of dollars to absolutely refine every aspect of the product,” says Bernstein. “We know it can be advanced and refined and that’s our intention.”
For now, MealEnders are available to purchase only through the company’s website and cost about 60 cents each. Bernstein, buoyed by the initial sales, is focusing on creating a brand identity and a following before venturing into retail. “If we went into Walgreens tomorrow, it’s not absolutely clear to me that people would recognize what we are and shelve it in the right place,” he says.
For those on the fence about trying the lozenges, Bernstein offers a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee. “If it doesn’t work for you, send it back and we’ll give you your money back,” he says. Has using MealEnders helped him to keep the extra pounds off? “Yeah, I’m as light as I’ve been in 20 years,” he says.