Defeat cravings for unhealthful food in 2 minutes

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By Tim Newman  

Fact checked by Gianna
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
However, the authors caution
that “additional research in home settings is needed to explore this in
greater depth.”
Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.