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Can a whiff of grapefruit kill your sweet tooth?

By Linda Dahlstrom

What it is: Crave Relief by Bath and Body Works, $10

What it claims to do: The manufacturer says the blend of grapefruit and sweet fennel essential oils is "known to help curb cravings for sweets and stave off hunger."

My experience: To be fair, the lipstick-sized tube of essential oils was no match for the trifecta of triple-chocolate fudge cake, chocolate chip cookies and spongy white cake with gooey frosting. The week I tested Crave Relief was a particularly celebratory one in the msnbc.com newsroom, each happy occasion accompanied by a tempting dessert.

Image: Instant aromatherapy craving relief.
Bath & Body Works

I've always had a weakness for sweets. As the daughter of a cake maker who came home from school to the cozy smell of baked goods on many afternoons, my love for goodies runs deep. Crave Relief seemed like a good candidate to bolster my willpower to resist.

Except it didn't. I suspected I was in trouble the first time I applied the citrus-scented potion to my wrists and it reminded me of the homemade lemon meringue pie my mother had brought over the night before.

Things never got much better. I found myself in a weird cycle of trying to fight the temptation of a sugary sweet by frantically snorting my wrists, a poor substitute for a bite of tiramisu or whatever it was I was trying to forget about. And then, eventually, every time I smelled Crave Relief it made me think of goodies.

Maybe I just wasn't committed enough to resisting. I don't generally indulge in sweets to excess, so when there's something really extraordinary, I let myself have a small piece. Crave Relief probably would have worked just fine if I was being wooed by a piece of hard candy or a stale Red Vine.

What the expert said: While Crave Relief didn't work for me, in theory, it could work, said Dr. Tanya Edwards, medical director for the center for integrative medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

The main active ingredients in Crave Relief are sweet fennel and grapefruit oil, and studies in rats have shown that grapefruit oil can act as an appetite suppressant. (Edwards couldn't find any research on sweet fennel acting as an appetite suppressant or helping fight a sugar craving.)

But for people who have a true sugar addiction, there's only one way out, said Edwards: Quit cold turkey.

"I treat sweet cravings the same way I treat crack cravings," she said. "Sugar and sweets affect receptors in brains very similarly to the ways that crack and morphine and addictive substances do ... You wouldn't tell a crack addict to cut down on the number of rocks per week."

Edwards said a true sugar addict is someone who can't keep from eating sugar once they start, regardless of potential detrimental outcomes.

But for those who have a more run-of-the-mill fondness for sweets, a periodic indulgence on a special occasion is fine, said Edwards. "Just don't have five special occasions a week!"

Bottom line:
Triple-chocolate fudge cake is more powerful than Crave Relief.