Science: What good smells people like — and what doesn’t it smell?


Vanilla Hue, Sweaty Feet: What people like to smell and what they don’t like doesn’t depend on their cultural background.

Vanilla smells good, sweaty feet are sickening – people all over the world feel the same way. This is evidenced by the study conducted by an international research team in current biology. “We wanted to check whether people all over the world have the same olfactory perception and like the same types of smells, or whether this is something that has been culturally learned,” says Artin Arshamian of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, describing the idea. “Traditionally, this has been considered cultural, but we can show that culture has little to do with it.”

For their investigations, the scientists had people from ten regions and cultures around the world smell special incense sticks. These include city-dwellers from Mexico and North America, members of hunter-gatherer tribes from the tropical rainforests of Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia, and farmers from the highlands of Ecuador. A total of 253 people participated. They were given the task of categorizing ten scents – from disgusting to delicious.

What smells good to us? How do we smell anyway?

The results showed differences in odor perception among participants in a regional group, but there was general agreement around the world on odors and odors. The flavoring vanillin, which smells like vanilla fruit, was rated as the best. Butyric acid ethyl ester, which smells fruity like peach or pineapple, has also proven popular. Isovaleric acid, which resembles cheese foot, was rated by most participants as the most disgusting smell.

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According to the statistical analysis, personal preferences and the chemical composition of odor molecules had the greatest influence on olfactory rating – they explain the differences found about 54% and about 41%, respectively. At about 6 percent, culture had no effect. “We now know that there is a universal sense of smell, controlled by molecular structure, and this explains why we either love or hate a particular smell,” Archamian says. “The next step is to investigate why this is by relating this knowledge to what happens in the brain when we smell a particular scent.”

There, the odor molecules are detected by receptors on the olfactory cells of the olfactory mucosa. Humans have about 400 different receptors that respond to different chemical structures. The binding of odor molecules to their receptors leads to a stimulation that is transmitted to the brain through the nerve pathways. There the signals are processed – sniff.

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