The modern world can seem saturated with unhealthful food options. It can be a challenge to make positive dietary choices. A new study finds an intriguingly simple way to combat cravings for unhealthful foods.
woman canteen
Making healthful food choices can be tough.

Researchers from the marketing department at the University of South Florida in Tampa are interested in odors.

In recent years, ambient odors have become one of the many tools that businesses use to attract customers and influence their behavior.

Although it is a fledgling science, businesses big and small have jumped on the ambient scent bandwagon.

Food companies and restaurants, unsurprisingly, use the smell of delicious food to tempt people into their establishments.

However, the use of ambient aromas goes beyond selling food items. For instance, the Samsung flagship store in New York pumps in the aroma of honeydew melons.

The authors of the current study wanted to understand, in more detail, how food-related ambient scents might affect food choices. In particular, they focused on how these aromas impacted the selection of healthful vs. unhealthful foods.

Ambient aromas and food choice

The researchers chose to look at dietary choices because of “growing worldwide concerns about unhealthy eating and rising obesity rates.” Their fascinating findings have been published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

To investigate, they ran a series of experiments in which people in various situations were exposed to the scent of either a healthful food, such as an apple or strawberries, or an unhealthful food, such as cookies or pizza.

They identified a trend that ran throughout their experiments, and it seems quite contrary to expectations.

First, people who were exposed to an aroma of unhealthful food for 30 seconds or less were more likely to choose unhealthful food options — this is no surprise.

However, individuals exposed to the aroma of unhealthful food for 2 minutes or longer were more likely to make healthful food choices.

The aroma of pizza

The first experiment took place at a middle school cafeteria used by around 900 children. They ran the study across 3 days, and each day, the children were exposed to one of three conditions: a control condition with no scent, an ambient aroma of pizza, and an ambient aroma of apples.

The aroma was distributed using nebulizers placed near the children as they stood in line for food. The researchers purposefully slowed down the line so that everyone would be exposed to the smell for at least 2 minutes.

On the day that the apple aroma was present, 36.96 percent of the items sold were unhealthful. On the control day, 36.54 percent of the items sold were unhealthful; there was virtually no difference between the two.

In stark contrast, on the pizza aroma day, only 21.43 percent of purchased snacks were unhealthful; this is a significant difference.

The authors write:

We propose that this occurs because scents related to an indulgent food satisfy the reward circuitry in the brain, which in turn reduces the urge for actual consumption of indulgent foods.”

In another experiment, the researchers took the testing into the lab. This time, they tested two sweet aromas — cookie (unhealthful) and strawberry (healthful).

At the start of the trial, the participants sat in a room with one aroma for at least 2 minutes. Then, the researchers placed plates of strawberries and cookies in the lab and asked the participants which food they would choose.

Once again, those who had been exposed to the ambient aroma of the unhealthful food were significantly more likely to choose the healthful option.

Supermarket aromas

In a third experiment, the researchers moved to a supermarket setting. With the permission of the managers, they pumped the smell of either chocolate chip cookies or strawberries into the store.

They found that the total amount of money spent per person was the roughly the same across both aromas. As expected, while the indulgent scent was present, the proportion of unhealthful items purchased by each customer was lower.

In another experiment, they tested the importance of odor duration. The scientists exposed some participants to a cookie or strawberry aroma for less than 2 minutes and others for longer than 2 minutes.

Once again, those who had smelled cookies for more than 2 minutes were likelier to choose a more healthful food. On the other hand, those who had smelled cookies for under 2 minutes were more likely to choose an unhealthful snack; so timing is crucial.

Overall, these findings give a fascinating and potentially useful insight into food cravings and how to minimize them.

More work is sure to follow, but using ambient scents in this way could be an innovative new approach to reducing the purchase and consumption of unhealthful foods. For instance, as the authors explain:

“[U]sing cookie-scented air fresheners or scented candles could possibly nudge healthier choices at home.”

However, the authors caution that “additional research in home settings is needed to explore this in greater depth.”