With just one whiff of a freshly baked cookie, sometimes all you want to do is devour it. But what if the solution to getting over that craving were as simple as sniffing it a little longer? New research out of the University of South Florida suggests that in order to overcome our temptations, we may just need to smell them for a full two minutes.
In the experiment, researchers tempted subjects with a choice. In one condition, participants had to choose between a cookie or strawberries. In another, a choice between pizza or an apple.
Those who caught a brief whiff of the less nutritious food were more likely to choose to eat it. Surprisingly, those who sniffed these goodies for longer than two minutes almost always chose the healthier food instead, demonstrating just how powerful the relationship between our nose, stomach, and brain can be.
What the researchers call “ambient scents,” or subtle scents that encompass your surroundings, play a key role in this type of decision making. The researchers hope that future studies on the same topic can shed light onto creative ways to prevent childhood obesity, which currently affects 17 percent of children in the United States—if cravings for junk food can be satisfied by just a scent, children and adults alike would be prompted to choose healthier options.
This effect expanded beyond a lab setting, too. Over the course of multiple days, the researchers filled an entire middle school cafeteria with the scent of pizza and found that 21 percent of the food items chosen by the students were unhealthy. Conversely, on the days the cafeteria was filled with the scent of apples, this statistic jumped to 37 percent.
When they repeated this framework in a supermarket, they found virtually the same effect: On cookie-scented days, 29.5 percent of adults selected unhealthy foods, as tracked by their receipts. On strawberry-scented days, 45 percent purchased food that was unhealthy. Researchers attribute this to the fact that the scent of healthy food isn’t correlated with reward in our brains, meaning that this cravings itch goes unscratched.
While we wouldn’t suggest sporting pizza-scented perfume or carrying around cookie-scented air fresheners, this research does remind us to be mindful about our eating habits. In any case, literally and figuratively stopping to smell the roses can help you make the healthier choice when it comes to your cravings.