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Researchers tempted hungry middle schoolers with three different scents—here's what they found.

Zee Krstic
January 22, 2019

Smelling food instead of actually eating seems like a ridiculous celebrity-induced weight-loss hack—but according to new research, it may actually satisfy some cravings.

In a new study in the Journal of Research Marketing, researchers from the University of South Florida found that a few minutes of simply smelling an unhealthy meal—like deep-dish cheese pizza, for example—seems to signal satisfaction to the brain as much when you actually eat it.

The study tackled a sales tactic where scent is used to sell products, otherwise known in the industry as ambient scent: It's used by restaurants and supermarkets to get shoppers to buy ready-to-eat products. One particular example illustrated in the study is at the high-end Chicago restaurant, Alinea, where fresh cinnamon sticks and rosemary are burned as an actual appetizer.

To see exactly how scent plays a role into what we actually order and eat, the team of researchers decided to test both shoppers in a supermarket and hungry teens in a middle school cafeteria.

On three different days, students at the school were exposed to ambient scents. On one day they smelled freshly baked pizza (which served as an indulgent food). On another, they experienced the scent of an apple. And on the third day, there was no scents, to provide a control. Researchers used a high-tech nebulizer to waft the scents into the criteria before recording whether or not students chose more indulgent meals at the checkout line.

Surprisingly, researchers noted that students purchased fewer "unhealthy" meals when the pizza was wafted into the air.

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At the supermarket, the team filled the store with smells of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies—followed by strawberries, with an hour in between to let aromas fade. They surveyed receipts of purchases made in that time to see how many healthy staples (things like veggies and fruits) were purchased, versus indulgent items (like cakes from the bakery).

Here, researchers also discovered more healthier items were purchased when cookies were in play—they also noticed the inverse was true for the strawberry experiment. Their conclusion was that just two minutes of being exposed to a scent was enough to influence the "reduced purchase of unhealthy foods."

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“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,” the authors wrote.

The study makes it clear that the results are limited, because it focused on the food that was purchased and not actually eaten—and that further research is needed to see how other factors, including how long people can stave off their cravings, could influence results. Furthermore, it's unclear if the scents used in this experiment were actually enticing to participants, as quality of the scents themselves weren't discussed.

The bottom line: While it may sound ridiculous, smelling a favorite indulgent meal could signal as much pleasure and satisfaction to the brain as actually eating it. But these findings need to be replicated and observed in different settings before a solid link is proven, so take this news with a hint of salt.

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