Nick & Choose 22: Le Whif

Published March 31, 2010

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A Real Drag
There’s a sucker born every minute.

Ideas good in theory: strip clubs, socialism, pizza bagels. In practice, these things never live up to their imagined potential. For the moment, breathable food can be added to the list.

Le Whif is an invention from Harvard biomedical engineering professor David Edwards. As the founder of both Labogroup and the Foodlab at Le Laboratoire in Paris, Edwards and his team have created inventions like Andrea, an air purification system using houseplants; the Pumpkin, a specialized container to aid water transportation in the developing world; and a cylinder of inhalable chocolate, named after an effete, Pink Panther villain.

The idea behind Le Whif is to provide chocolate without the calories. Each ChapStick-shaped inhaler contains eight to 10 puffs. A quick drag covers your taste buds with an organic chocolate cloud. Not a chocoholic but a product tester with an oral fixation, I grabbed handfuls of all three flavors and handed them out to coworkers and friends for a week of experimentation.

The most common response upon encountering Le Whif is one of confusion. “It looks like some drug,” said Amanda, our assistant editor. “If you saw me doing this, you’d be like, that girl’s f***ed up.” Giving her a raspberry Whif and a tutorial only increased the unease. Pull out this. Suck on that. It was all very Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The best response to the first hit came from our intern Tom. After a burst of mint chocolate, his eyes shot open like he’d been goosed. As his blush faded, he managed a weak, “It kinda tastes like chocolate.”

For me, that was the problem. I found the taste weak. Yet at the same time, while the granules are too big to enter the lungs, each pull felt like I was battering my uvula and tonsils with a blustery Nestlé gale. Nearly all my huffs were followed by coughs. Either I possess the lung power of a bottlenose dolphin, or, despite years of practice, I was screwing up the process of breathing.

“It takes some time to learn the technique,” said LaboGroup COO Tom Hadfield. “We equate it to learning how to use chopsticks.” (For the record, I can’t use chopsticks without getting hand cramps and soy sauce on my shirt.) Calling from London and masking his pity behind an English accent, Hadfield explained that enjoying Le Whif requires just “a gentle kiss.” This is a hard concept to follow when candy is involved. If the tubes had cargo-bay doors, I would’ve dumped their payloads into my mouth like I was fighting an oral forest fire.

That technique would’ve flown in the face of Le Whif’s primary selling point. Besides offering portability, Hadfield claims that the product provides efficient consumption. Consider that one Hershey’s Kiss contains 200 calories, and while it delivers taste, only a few grams of all that fat and sugar is actually coating your tongue. With Le Whif, a soft blanketing of flavor nets you less than a single calorie.

“Yeah, but chocolate melts in your mouth,” contended my friend Derek, after an unenthusiastic toke. And surely, the sensuousness of eating is absent. Le Whif would also be hard-pressed to win my girlfriend’s $2.50. “If there was some other thing to it besides the chalky chocolate, maybe. It needs some kind of bonus.”

Ahead of the game, the FoodLab has created coffee Le Whif, with each tube containing the caffeine equivalent of a shot of espresso. Already in demand after a limited run, I couldn’t get my hands on any, which may be good, because as a caffeine junkie, it’s possible my mouth isn’t the only orifice I would have used to ingest it.

“We’re working on new flavors,” Hadfield assured. “In the future, it’s conceivable you could breathe almost any food, so maybe you’ll be breathing a three-course meal.”

But there’s competition in the cutthroat world of aerosol science. Hometown rival Compellis Pharmaceuticals is now working on a nasal spray designed to curb the appetite by temporarily altering one’s sense of smell.

Faced with a tube packed with powdered au poivre, I might not need the help.

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