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Could a Tiny Mint Kick My Sugar Cravings?
An ‘addict’ seeks help from a new 14-day system
I used to see personal trainer Harley Pasternak at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, where he always performed a magic trick. He bought a chocolate chip cookie, ate half, and threw the rest away. It was a feat of willpower I could only aspire to. One day, I thought, I will traipse the globe rationing a perfect amount of pleasure with a half of a croissant in Paris, a half of a slice of Linzer torte in Vienna, a half of a churro in Mexico City.
“You were seeing a snapshot of my day. Not the whole picture,” says Pasternak, who is the trainer on Khloé Kardashian’s E! show, Revenge Body, and has trained Gwyneth Paltrow, Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian, and Ariana Grande. “I was getting three or four cookies a day. It was the greatest denial of all time. I would get coffee. I’m sure they make good coffee. But they made the best chocolate chip cookies in town. It gave me this happiness. This childlike I-have-a-fresh-baked-cookie happiness.” This is a guy who would never put a sugar packet in his coffee. Who cautions against eating types of fruit in which you can’t eat the skin.
Pasternak got to work on creating a way to help people like him, and me, combat our sugar cravings. His first product is the Sweetkick 14-Day Sugar Reset Kit, which costs $46 and comes in a brightly covered box that says “Not today, sugar.” My wife, who craves salt and doesn’t care about desserts, shakes her head when she sees it. “Ah, the battles we fight every day,” she says. “This is why Republicans think we’re snowflakes.” When she says this, I remember that we have a snow cone machine in the closet.
Inside the kit are 14 packets of “body balance powder” you can pour into your coffee or smoothie in the morning, a bunch of packets of mints you pop after every meal, and a booklet outlining the meal plan Pasternak promotes in all his diet books: three meals and two snacks per day, each a combination of fiber, low-fat protein, and healthy fat.
The powder is a mix of fiber and chromium “to help support balanced blood sugar levels,” according to the product literature. But the magical part of the kit is the mints, which contain extracts from a leaf called gymnema sylvestre. These extracts have a similar molecular structure to sugar, so they glom onto the tongue’s sweet receptors. As a result, for about an hour after eating a mint, everything tastes a lot less sweet. Some studies have also shown that gymnema increases insulin production, because it gloms onto similar sugar receptors in the pancreas. “I came across the ingredient because of my work with diabetes,” says Pasternak. Both his brothers are Type 1 diabetics, and he came to Los Angeles because Halle Berry, who is diabetic, wanted his expertise in training her. Gymnema is horribly bitter, but the peppermint oil hides this completely; another company, called Sweet Defeat, started to make similar mints earlier this year.
“My son offers me some of his soft-serve ice cream at the Hollywood Bowl, partly because he’s a really nice kid, but mostly because he saw me eat a mint and he was being a dick.”
Robin Dando, an associate professor of food science who runs the Dando Taste Physiology Lab at Cornell, where he teaches a course titled “Sensory Evaluation of Foods,” says gymnema will definitely make sweet stuff taste bad, which might help us eat less sugar. “There have been studies that suggest that reducing sweetness in our diets makes us more sensitive to sweet foods, and thus presumably when more sensitive, we’d need less sweetness to be satisfied,” he says. But then Dando added, “Conversely, in one study we ran, people actively experiencing sweetness blockade through gymnema gravitated towards higher, not lower, sweetness from foods.” A study that Pasternak funded found the opposite: that people who used the mints consumed less sugar and calories.
I pop a mint and reach for a pint of mango sorbet. The sweetness is blunted. I still get a sugar rush, but I give up after a few spoonfuls because consuming it feels like a waste. It’s more cold than delicious.
On my second day, my son offers me some of his soft-serve ice cream at the Hollywood Bowl, partly because he’s a really nice kid, but mostly because he saw me eat a mint and he was being a dick. The ice cream does not taste good. The next day, after I eat a mint, he offers me butter mints. These, oddly, are great: not sweet, but minty and refreshing. Then I realize I can get the same experience without the sugar from another one of Pasternak’s mints.
The first week of sugar kicking goes great. The powder I take in the morning is just a little sweet, and Pasternak is planning on using that natural sweetener to produce a line of treats. “You’re very vulnerable in the morning,” Pasternak says. You’ve been fasting all night and are likely to reach for orange juice, a pastry, or a Frappuccino. “It will get you through until your first mint after breakfast.”
Any mint is oddly satisfying after a meal, and knowing that desserts are going to taste worse is a big disincentive to eat them. By day six, I’m noticing that foods I order at restaurants that I don’t think have sugar are unpleasantly sweet: the dressing that comes with a salad I got at a health food joint, a poke bowl, the miso sauce on top of a plate of crudo. I also notice that dining companions do not like when you point out that the crudo is too sweet for your virtuous taste buds.
On day 12, I go to Vancouver for work. On my way to the hotel gym, I take a wrong turn down a hall and wind up near the conference rooms. Two tables are parked outside, filled with bite-size desserts — brownies, chocolate balls, lemon bars. I walk right by, work out, and head out to dinner at the Blue Water Café, where I get a salad and the halibut. After, the waiter presents me with a dessert menu: dulce de leche banana bread pudding with chocolate Bailey’s gelato, warm dark chocolate cake with a brandy truffle center, pistachio crème brûlée with silky chocolate mousse. I turn each one down.
When the waiter brings the check, he says, “Here are some little chocolate cakes on us.” They are tiny chocolate cakes, insignificant really, and not eating them would be a breach of etiquette, an insult to the very kind waiter, a possible diplomatic disturbance between our two nations during these tense times. So I eat them.
When I get back to the hotel, I take a right at the front desk and head to that conference room area. Those dessert trays cannot still be here. Someone must have cleaned the area. But they are. How long ago was this conference? The mini glasses of pink and green smoothies have separated into layers of a scary science experiment. Nevertheless, I steal a chocolate ball and some kind of granola-based square. I scan the wall for cameras, and consider putting them in my pockets, but I’ve only brought one other pair of pants on this trip. So I palm them on my walk to the elevator, wait for the doors to shut, and gobble both of them.
In my room, there are two pieces of chocolate on my bed. I grab a mint and suck the crap out of it.
I confess my Vancouver sins to Pasternak, expecting to have to say seven Our Fathers and eight Hail Marys. But he’s proud of me. “It’s not an all or none thing. It’s about noticing you’ve developed a very sweet palate. If you are able to go from three sodas a day to two sodas a day or from someone who normally puts sugar in your coffee to not, you’re succeeding.” And in case I’m not, I’m keeping a pack of those mints in my pocket.