The Scent of Junk Food
We’ve all experienced getting a whiff of a food, then starting to have a craving for it. Think of walking into a movie theater and suddenly needing to get in the concession line because the popcorn smells irresistible or wanting to purchase a burger and fries as you pass the mall food court and catch their scent or desperately desiring a doughnut because the freshly baked ones smell so good when you go to buy your coffee. But, according to new research, the key to not giving in to these cravings might be to just stand there and keep sniffing. When it comes to junk food sniffing, timing might just be everything.
The study, which was conducted at the University of South Florida in Tampa, found that breathing in the aroma of junk food for a minimum of two minutes may help curb your longing to indulge in it.1 These results are based on a series of experiments performed at a supermarket, in a laboratory, and in a middle school with a population of approximately 900 students.
To examine the power of ambient scents, a marketing strategy used to create a pleasing atmosphere and encourage purchases, the investigators used a nebulizer to introduce a food-related aroma to the air. In one of the trials, a pizza scent was diffused throughout the middle school cafeteria. The researchers tallied the food choices made and discovered that 21 percent of the purchases were unhealthy items such as fried chicken, hot dogs, and chips.
The same experiment was conducted another day, but instead the cafeteria was permeated with an apple scent. Interestingly, on that day, almost 40 percent of the food purchases were unhealthy. Yes, you read that correctly. Unhealthy choices were higher when healthy scents were released. And that total was even higher than it was on the control day during which no scents were released, when around 36 percent of the food purchases were unhealthy.
The variation conducted in the supermarket was similar, with chocolate chip cookie and strawberry scents released with an hour in between to allow the air to clear. Grocery receipts collected during each period were then assessed, and the shoppers walking the aisles scented with cookies tended to choose more healthy items such as fruits. And once again, those shopping during the release of the “healthy” strawberry aroma were more likely to select unhealthy foods like cake.
In the more sterile setting of a lab, roughly 250 subjects were treated to either the scent of strawberries or cookies for varied lengths of time. Afterward, the participants were interviewed about which food they would eat if given the choice. Close to 45 percent of the volunteers smelling the cookie scent for less than 30 seconds opted for cookies over strawberries.
However, among those who were exposed to the cookie scent for more than two minutes, just 22 percent selected cookies. And the phenomenon again appears to occur in both directions based on length of smell-time, with the subjects who smelled strawberries for longer exposure periods linked to a higher percentage of less healthy choices. In this case, though, the correlation was not strong enough to be statistically significant.
So, this research adds to the evidence that getting a “short” whiff of junk food makes us want to indulge in that kind of food pretty strongly, as was found in a 2017 study at University Hospital of Bellvitge-IDIBELL in Barcelona, Spain that involved chocolate.2 But the good news is that the current research shows that an easy way to avoid the junk food is to “push” that short whiff and maintain your willpower for at least two minutes, at which point your desire for junk food diminishes and your desire for healthy food increases. To be sure, we know many food purveyors—such as Cinnabon, who choose locations and employ tactics to make sure the scents of their products wafts our way. But it seems you can beat them at their own game if you just hold out for at least two minutes. Since our sense of smell is so powerful, it is entirely possible that this can work effectively.
The new investigation gives us hope that we can combat this. After all, inhaling a scent for long enough may activate the reward center of the brain without a person ever having to actually consume the junk food. This little trick might not work for you all the time, but it’s a good thing to be aware of and keep in mind the next time you’re in a restaurant or passing the Cinnabon at the airport.
- 1. Biswas, Dipayan and Szocs, Courtney. "The Smell of Healthy Choices: Cross-Modal Sensory Compensation Effects of Ambient Scent on Food Purchases." Journal of Marketing Research. 4 January 2019. Accessed 25 January 2019. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0022243718820585.
- 2. Wolz, I.; et al. "Subjective craving and event-related brain response to olfactory and visual chocolate cues in binge-eating and healthy individuals." Scientific Reports. Accessed 26 January 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5290481/.