From the time Cyndi Finkle’s daughter was 2 years old, Finkle would wake her up in the morning with the smell of her breakfast. “The smell of bacon and pancakes always assured her to wake up easily and in a great mood,” says Finkle, who owns a cafe in Los Angeles and a craft-services business that feeds television crews. “I would bring the plate of food into her room and hold it to her sleeping form. Then I would leave the room, taking the food with me, and, a few minutes later, she would wake up from a deep sleep, happy and ready for her day.”
Finkle may have created the tradition more out of love than due to any scientific reasons, but science does support her theory of smells making us happier. In fact, unlike our other senses, our sense of smell is closely linked to the brain’s centers for emotion, memory, and creativity, according to the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that researches taste and smell. What this means is that when it comes to smell, we process it first with our emotional brain, and it’s only then that we actually think about it.
“I’m a self-taught chef and know that the smell of food can affect my moods, both positively and negatively, bringing me comfort, happiness, hunger, community,” says Finkle.
Research show that the aromas given off during the cooking process can trigger positive memories in the brain. In one such study, subjects were presented with a potato baked in the oven for an hour at 140 degrees, then asked if the smell inspired any feelings. A majority of the subjects reported associating those wafts of hot air from the oven with positive memories — of grandparents cooking or dinners with their family.
“Food aromas and their recognition is a complex brain function, which we’ve only recently started to understand,” Dr. Avinash Kant, who led the research, told the The Daily Mail. “But this research goes some way to explaining why we have such an emotional response to jacket potatoes. The aroma compounds formed during the baking process are subconsciously recognized by our memories. The memory triggered depends on the experience you had when you first ate a baked potato.”
Appealing To Your Sense Of Smell
According to research, even just looking at a delicious meal will activate the part of your brain that controls drive and pleasure, the same part of the brain — the orbitofrontal cortex — that is involved in drug addiction. Studies have shown that seeing or smelling food results in increased hunger and desire for food.
Sneaky marketers and retailers know this fact and use it to appeal to your senses, resulting in your buying a product. Smells can, in fact, determine what you buy and for how much. According to one study, researchers found that 84 percent of shoppers found identical new shoes more attractive when there was a pleasant aroma in the room. They were also willing to pay more for them.
Jonathan Raduns, who merchandises food for a living in many food-service and retail environments, says, “One of the first things we do is to find out how to get more smell out into the areas from which we can draw prospective buyers. There are interesting new technologies that create smells that really help improve sales. People respond positively to these scents and usually buy more.” For a small retailer, for instance, the easiest way to get kitchen or bakery smells onto the sales floor is to use a fan. “If you enter a Wegmans grocery store in the fall, the entire store entrance will be filled with the smell of cinnamon,” says Raduns. “Other, more technical systems have synthetically or naturally derived scents misted into the air.” Another method for building more sales through positive smells, he says, is simply to bake or prepare food more often. “Companies like Otis Spunkmeyer, a major frozen-batter supplier for cookies and muffins have an integrated small-oven program available for retailers. Stores can then bake frequent small batches of fresh cookies very close to the point of sale in many retail food environments.”
Marketers are savvy at bringing out our wallets using our noses, but what is this relationship between aromas and our brain that makes us react in this way?
Sniffing For Your Brain
It may seem odd, but food and drink are identified primarily by the senses of smell and sight, not taste. To your brain, what you think of as taste is actually a fusion of sight, smell, and touch. Smell is an integral part of what constitutes the flavor of your food. In fact, about 80 percent of what you taste is actually due to your sense of smell. Without it, you’d be limited to the five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory.
If you want to alter a food’s flavor, you could easily do so by changing its smell and keeping the taste the same. Our sense of smell actually becomes stronger when we’re hungry.
But what most people don’t realize is that smell isn’t just a single sense; rather, it can be divided into two types: orthonasal (breathing in) and retronasal (breathing out). The orthonasal sense is the one we all know about — the smell of fresh flowers in the morning, the odor of cologne on your boyfriend’s neck, the incense you light in your office in the morning. Retronasal smells are a very different kind of smell. For one, they originate in the mouth and are always accompanied by the stimulation of the senses of taste and touch. When you eat, the chewing motion releases smell molecules from the food, which are carried into the nasal chambers. That’s the sense of flavor you experience when you taste food.
Playing To Your Sense Of Smell
“The effect of smell on the customers is to draw them into your department display work, toward products,” says Raduns. “In many cases, a good customer may be able to smell something prior to observing it visually. Positive smells can have a compelling effect.”
“When smells are combined with images, we’re more likely to remember the product,” says author Martin Lindstrom, in his book, “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy.” Raduns agrees. “Eighty percent of the information customers use to determine a purchase is received through the eyes. I believe that scents draw people in and capture their interest to further examine displays or products.”
But just as scents can arouse the appetite, scientists, and food technologists have found that there are molecules that can activate areas of the brain that trigger the feeling of fullness. Dr. Rianne Ruijschop, a food technologist at NIZO Food Research in Ede, Netherlands, and colleagues published a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, in which she detailed how researchers could develop a new generation of foods that could release aromas that help people feel full, thus fighting the obesity epidemic that now exists in many Western nations. They could add capsules that boost the taste or release aromas, reduce bite size so that people have to chew more, add chewy ingredients, or introduce more complex odors in the food.
It’s easy to trick our noses, as marketers already know. That’s why they infuse foods with flavors we recognize — the chicken scent in McNuggets or the fruity smell in fruit candy — which help us believe that the junk food we’re eating may have some nutritional value. According to the Social Issues Research Centre, a nonprofit think tank in England, the nose is our primary organ of taste. We can fool it into tasting certain flavors.
Finkle’s daughter is now 12 years old, but, says Finkle, “I know that if her first scent in the morning is a yummy one, she will rise and greet the day happier.”
This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.