It's one of the ultimate tests of will power: you've been wandering around the mall like a zombie for hours; you're tired, you're hungry and there's no end in sight. 

Then you catch a whiff of something aromatic, delicious, probably fried and almost certainly fattening. It could be french fries, fried chicken or the ultimate evil: Cinnabon.

Don't be fooled, there's no problem with the ventilation at the food court. Junk food vendors are well aware that the scent of their product triggers a craving in your brain. It is a response that has been researched, and you better believe your favorite fast food chains have marketing teams that are using that research to their advantage.

It's part of a conspiracy to get you to drop a couple of bucks to satiate the craving they implanted in your head. But we all know that you'll pay for that indulgence later, whether it's through gastro-intestinal distress, or seeing those added calories around your mid-section. 

Let's take a closer look at this process. 

Have you ever noticed that whatever indulgent treat catches your nose's attention tends to be most appealing just after you first smell it? A couple minutes later you're standing in line with all the other slaves to their stomachs and it isn't quite as irrestible as it was just moments ago, but now you're invested and you trust that first instinct to gorge yourself.

But recent science says that this is actually the right moment to walk away.

"Ambient scent can be a powerful tool to resist cravings for indulgent foods," said Dipayan Biswas, a marketing professor at the University of South Florida College of Business.

Biswas led research that found there is a direct connection between how long a person is exposed to indulgent food scents and choosing healthier foods. 

"The results of a series of experiments, including field studies at a supermarket and at a middle school cafeteria, show that extended exposure (of more than two minutes) to an indulgent food-related ambient scent (e.g., cookie scent) leads to lower purchases of unhealthy foods compared with no ambient scent or a nonindulgent food-related ambient scent (e.g., strawberry scent)," reads the study summary.

What appears to be going on here is that the brain doesn't necessarily distinguish between a pleasurable smell or taste. 

"Prolonged exposure to an indulgent/rewarding food scent induces pleasure in the reward circuitry, which in turn diminishes the desire for actual consumption of indulgent foods," the paper explains. 

So next time you're feeling you don't have the will power to resist that gigantic cinnamon roll, it might be as simple as sitting there and smelling all that sweetness for just a minute or two. To your brain, it's the same as actually chowing down on a cup of frosting, and the craving should wane.

"Subtle sensory stimuli like scents can be more effective in influencing children's and adults' food choices than restrictive policies," Biswas says. 

There's a high stakes experiment for you: park your child in front of a donut shop and tell them to get a good whiff for two minutes before pulling them away abruptly and asking if they're full. 

Good luck with that one. 

Published on: Jul 23, 2019
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