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Smell and Food Choices: Can Certain Scents Kill Your Junk Food Cravings?

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Smell and food choices - Dr. Axe

You’d think that the scent of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven would trigger you to overindulge. However, an interesting area of research suggests that the connection between smell and food choices could actually help fight junk food cravings.

It turns out, the timing matters.

Study Findings: Smell and Food Choices

A study published in the Journal of Marketing Research in 2019 found that, up to a certain extent, you don’t need actual food to quell a food craving.

In previous research, the lead study author looked at how music and lighting can impact people’s food shopping choices. This time around, he focused on how certain odors mights dictate whether people choose healthy food or “indulgent” junk food.

To investigate how ambient, “background” food scents could impact food choice, researchers constructed a series of tests using a hidden nebulizer to fill the air with the scent of healthy and unhealthy foods. The tests included scents like cookies versus strawberries and pizza versus apples.

They performed the experiment in a number of settings, including a middle school cafeteria, a grocery store and a lab.

Here are some of the main takeaways from the smell and food choices study:

  • How long you smell a food odor matters.
  • Those exposed to the cookie scent for under 30 seconds were more likely to crave a cookie.
  • People exposed for 2+ minutes, though, seemed to lose the craving and choose strawberries.
  • The same trend occurred when pizza and apple scents squared off. People chose the healthier option when they smelled the unhealthy food for more than two minutes.

The researchers noted that since non-indulgent foods don’t give off much of an ambient scent, they’re typically not connected with reward and therefore have little influence on what we order.

“Ambient scent can be a powerful tool to resist cravings for indulgent foods,” said lead author Dipayan Biswas, Ph.D., marketing professor at the University of South Florida College of Business. “In fact, subtle sensory stimuli like scents can be more effective in influencing children’s and adults’ food choices than restrictive policies.”

What It Means

It’s clear that smell and food choices are linked. Just think about it. The smell of food holds a powerful influence over our bodies.

Smelling certain food odors can increase your appetite, cause your mouth to water and even trigger your body to release gastric acid and insulin.

Plus, those who experience parosmia, a condition in which your sense of smell is distorted or, full loss of smell, known as anosmia, often experience reduced appetite and lower overall quality of life. (Sometimes medications, viruses or neurological disorders like Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis can trigger these conditions.)

While it’s clear our sense of smell influences our appetites and happiness, it’s less obvious how much we should rely on nebulizers sending out fragrances to whet the appetite.

Complicating matters is the fact that many synthetic scents contain phthalates, harmful plasticizers linked to health issues like obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. A 2021 study even found a link between phthalates and 100,000 premature deaths in America.

Tips for Healthy Eating

The smell of food is important and can influence what we eat — so it doesn’t hurt embracing the indulgent smells you experience when you walk into a bakery, grocery store or restaurant. If you give it time and let the smells sink in, it could actually satisfy your craving without even eating anything full of refined carbs.

But perhaps the biggest takeaway message is this: Many of us don’t feel in control of what we eat anymore, which is leading to obesity and many other diseases that also impact our meal choices.

Mindful eating is a practice that can ultimate change a person’s relationship to food. It also helps a person learn how to differentiate between physical hunger and emotional hunger or cravings.

Physical Hunger Signs:

  • Growling stomach
  • A decent amount of time has passed since your last meal
  • It’s roughly the time of day you usually feel hungry
  • You don’t fixate on one specific food.

Emotional Hunger Signs:

  • Cravings born from boredom, stress, anxiety or some other emotion
  • Experiencing tension and in need of a release
  • Desire to eat again despite eating enough recently

This mindful eating article includes more information, including how to do the “broccoli test.”

For some people, binge eating disorder may be at play. In these cases, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) or cognitive behavioral therapy may benefit the person.

Call, text or chat with the National Eating Disorders Association for help finding treatment options.

Conclusion

  • Odor can affect one’s food preferences, either taming the appetite or stimulating it.
  • A 2019 study found that smelling cookies for 30 seconds actually made people more likely to want a cookie.
  • That same study found smelling a cookie for more than two minutes actually led to consumers choosing a healthier food instead.
  • The field investigating smell and food choices is relatively new.
  • We can all benefit from developing mindful, intuitive eating habits.
  • For some, therapies like DBT may be needed to help get a handle on binge eating disorder.

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