By David Sheff
Updated June 28, 1982 12:00 PM

It sounds too good to be true. For years Americans of all sizes and shapes have been looking for a painless, guilt-free way to lose weight. Now multitudes of waist-watchers are swearing that they’ve found it in a new pill that is said to “block” the digestion of starchy foods. Lured by hyperbolic ads like “You can eat many of the foods you love and still lose pound after pound,” Americans are downing these so-called “starch blockers” at an estimated rate of 10 million pills a week and presumably chasing them with all the pizza, pasta and French bread they want.

“We’re talking major trend,” marvels one San Francisco drug chain buyer. “Before I even knew what they were, people were in here asking for them,” says another pharmacist. “I can’t keep the stuff in stock.” More than three dozen varieties are competing for space on the shelves of pharmacies, grocery stores and health food stores around the country, with some manufacturers distributing the same product under six different labels. Bottled under names such as Starch Breaker, Calorex and Red-U-Cal, the pills sell for as much as $50 per hundred (they cost only pennies to manufacture), but the price does not seem to be a deterrent. “My customers love it,” says Anita Roark, manager of the Beverly Hills branch of Great Earth Vitamins. “I think it’s here to stay.” Dr. Rene Gibson, a gastrointestinal physiologist at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital who has tested the pills on animals and humans, agrees: “People can eat more calories a day and still lose weight. Starch blockers will be bigger than anything the diet world has seen.”

Increasingly, however, the starch blockers have come under attack by experts who believe that their promise is just as chimerical as that of the medieval philosopher’s stone—and possibly a lot more hazardous. “Starch blockers are either ineffective or unsafe,” says Dr. Victor Herbert, a New York nutrition scientist. “Actual harm may be coming from the product.” Dr. Mark Saginor, an eminent L.A. endocrinologist, calls starch blockers “potentially dangerous” because they may interfere with protein digestion. He notes that he has seen no well-documented proof that starch blockers work in humans “in any way, shape or form.” He adds, “The problem is that it is being sold not as a drug but as a food supplement, which means there has been no FDA clearance.” (Last week, however, an FDA ruling was expected.)

The original starch blockers were test-marketed throughout the country in 1981 under the name Carbolite by Dr. J. John Marshall, an Edinburgh-born professor of microbiology at Notre Dame, and his partner, pharmacist Bob Lemon. Ironically, Marshall had been looking since 1970 for ways to bolster the nutritional intake of the world’s poor. Then he isolated a protein in raw kidney beans which interferes with the action of the enzyme that digests starch. The unused starch moves through the digestive tract and is eliminated from the system.

Next month 500,000 copies of Marshall’s The Original Starch-Blocker Diet will be released. In it he presents a weight loss plan to be used in conjunction with his pills. It allows the dieter 500 nonstarch calories plus 700 starch calories daily. He calls it “the first diet that allows you to eat and block the calories after the fact.” On the other hand, Marshall fumes at the unmonitored proliferation of starch blocker products by “irresponsible” competitors, whom he denigrates as “jackasses, frauds and downright crooks.” Marshall, who has trademarked the name Starch Blocker (plus five others) for his own pills, is particularly incensed at The Starch-Blocker Cookbook, written by free-lance journalist Cameron Stauth. Marshall claims that he hired Stauth to ghostwrite his diet book and that Stauth delayed turning in the manuscript while he rushed out his own book. “He’s a dirty rotten scum who got very greedy,” charges Marshall. “We’re going to court over it.” Stauth, in turn, says Marshall knew about his cookbook and plans to countersue for breach of contract.

Starch blockers have no effect, says Marshall, on the other nutrients in food, such as fats and protein. Thus, as he claims in his book, if you took a starch blocker pill, then ate a bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce, you would absorb the calories from the sauce but not from the starch in the pasta. However, Marshall notes, the pill must be taken immediately before eating a starchy meal. Moreover, since each pill is capable of eliminating only 400 calories of starch, starch blockers are not a license for uncontrolled gorging. “The pill does not let you eat as much as you want,” he warns. “It’s most effective when used together with other methods of weight control. It is not a replacement for proper nutrition and proper exercise.”

Some nutritionists believe it’s not always good to have your cake and eat it too. “Starches are needed by the body,” says Dr. Herbert. “If they are blocked, you are only burning protein and fat, which is dangerous.” “So you lose weight,” says nutritionist Nathan Pritikin, author of the rival The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise, “but at what price? The process allows absorption of cholesterol and fats. That can increase the risk of heart disease, breast cancer and cancer of the colon and prostate. It’s a hoax.”

Other problems arise from possible impurities in the pills themselves. “There are toxic substances in kidney beans,” explains Saginor, “that can inhibit the body’s protein absorption and affect the clotting of the blood if they are not carefully extracted.” Investigators have found bacterial contamination in some brands of the pills.

Another problem is that many of the brands being sold don’t contain enough of the protein extract to make them effective. “The active ingredient is such a small portion of the bean that unless the extraction process concentrates it adequately, the pill will do nothing,” says Nathan Sklar, a biochemist and manufacturer of the raw material from which several brands are made. “We control our production carefully,” he says, not surprisingly, “but other people are simply grinding up beans. A lot of people are buying just that, ground-up beans.” Author Stauth advises buying only starch blockers labeled “purified,” but without government regulation, the word is more or less meaningless.

Even more confusing, perhaps, is the fact that some of the very doctors who decry the pills admit to prescribing them for their patients. Saginor, for example, keeps a supply of “controlled quality” starch blockers for his patients who insist on taking them, although he does not advocate their use. Dr. Stephen Langer, an orthomolecular specialist and president of the American Nutritional Medical Association, worries openly about the dangers caused by excessive starch in the intestines or by allergic reactions to kidney beans. Yet, he confides, “I’ve used them myself. Like anything else, I believe they can be useful as an adjunct to a good diet to help in weight loss.”

More skeptical is Dr. Marion Nestle, associate dean at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco. “I have yet to see anything convincing scientifically to prove that starch blocker works. If it did, you would get terrible diarrhea and gas, and users are not reporting that. The thing that bothers me most about this diet,” she concludes, “is that it acts as if there is something wrong with starch. High-carbohydrate diets are terrific—high in vitamins, minerals and fiber and low in calories.” Of the people she knows who are taking starch blockers, Nestle reports, “Some are losing weight and some are not. It depends on what they’re eating, if you ask me.”

Perhaps the most skeptical word comes from a San Francisco general practitioner: “It’s such a wonderfully American phenomenon, isn’t it? We want a pill to cure everything, and here is one that allows us to indulge ourselves in everything we want. If you believe it works, you’ll believe anything.”