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Scents may be enough to satisfy cravings for fattening foods, study suggests

Groundbreaking research determined whether ambient scents are enough to satisfy cravings for high-calorie, fattening foods.

It can be difficult to eat healthily in today’s day, where unhealthy, calorie-dense foods are easily accessible. These foods are also heavily marketed to consumers, preventing nutrient-dense whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, from making their way into shopping carts. Although it is good to enjoy treats in moderation, it is important to have a balanced and nutritious diet.

One of the marketing techniques used to promote heavily processed foods is using scent to attract customers to the product.  However, recent research is suggesting this may not always be effective, especially in cases where people are exposed to the scent for a long period of time.  A recent United States study published to the Journal of Marketing Research examines the effect of prolonged ambient scent on food choices.

This study was performed through three different experiments.

Experiment 1

The first experiment consisted of diffusing an ambient scent of either pizza or apples through a middle school cafeteria on two different days and recording the proportion of unhealthy foods and beverages purchased out of the total number of items sold, which was 8,629 items.  Fruits, vegetables, milk, crackers, fruit snacks, bottled water, and grilled white meat were classified as healthy, while fries, chips, fried chicken, hot dogs, Rice Krispies treats, Gatorade, and fruit cobbler were considered unhealthy.

Experiment 2

The second experiment was performed in a lab setting, where they were unknowingly exposed to the ambient scent of either cookies or strawberries for at least two minutes.  The study group consisted of 216 people, with an approximately equal percentage of males and females.  The researchers asked participants the following, “Given a choice between cookies and strawberries, which one would you choose?”  The participants were to rate the choice using a scale of one to seven, with one meaning “definitely cookies”, and 7 meaning “definitely strawberries”.

Experiment 3

The third experiment was conducted at a busy supermarket, where 128 participants were exposed to the scent of either chocolate chip cookies or apples for two minutes while researchers asked participants if they would turn in their shopping receipts after their shopping trip.  The researchers then analyzed the shoppers’ receipts after, classifying products as healthy, unhealthy, or neutral/non-food items. For example, cakes would be coded as unhealthy, fruits were coded as healthy, and paper towels would be coded as a neutral/non-food item.

In the first study, 21.43% of the 2,931 items sold on the day of the pizza ambient scent were unhealthy whereas 36.96% of the 2,819 items sold on the day of the apples ambient scent were unhealthy.

In the second study, the mean participant choice was 4.68 when exposed to the cookie scent, and 3.94 when exposed to the strawberry scent.

In the third study, 53.66% of items sold were classified as healthy and 46.34% of the items sold were unhealthy for the participants exposed to the cookie scent.  Meanwhile, 29.73% of the items sold were healthy and 70.27% of the items sold were unhealthy for the participants exposed to the strawberry scent.

Prolonged exposure to fattening food scents can increase preference for healthy food

The results across all three experiments suggest that prolonged exposure to the scent of fattening foods can increase the preference for healthy food choices.  However, when participants are exposed to that scent for less than 30 seconds, this trend is reversed.  This might explain why getting a brief whiff of unhealthy food can cause cravings for that particular food.

These findings reveal the possible effects that prolonged exposure of ambient food scents can have on food choices. This can potentially lead to new ways of implicitly promoting healthy food choices and ultimately a healthier population. More research is needed to fully establish the ability of scents to satisfy cravings for indulgent foods.

Written by Avery Bisbee, BSc Candidate

Reference: Biswas, D., & Szocs, C. (2019). The Smell of Healthy Choices: Cross-Modal Sensory Compensation Effects of Ambient Scent on Food Purchases. Journal of Marketing Research,56(1), 123-141. doi:10.1177/0022243718820585



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