The Surprising Way to Resist the Lure of Junk Food

Just about everyone has ordered a side of fries after catching an intoxicating whiff. But new research, which was published in the Journal of Marketing Research, says that basking in the scent of junk food for at least two minutes can actually help you make healthier food choices.

In a series of experiments, the researchers found a surprising relationship between ambient scents and food choices. Time after time, they found that people who sniffed indulgent foods, like pizza or cookies, were actually less likely to choose or purchase unhealthy foods than those who smelled nutritious options, such as apples and strawberries. They confirmed this phenomenon by using a nebulizer to pump scents into a variety of environments, including a middle school cafeteria, a grocery store and a laboratory.

When a pizza scent was released into a cafeteria that served about 900 students, for example, 21% of food purchases that day were unhealthy choices like chips, hot dogs and fried chicken. But when an apple scent was released on another day, nearly 40% were unhealthy — slightly more than the roughly 36% that occurred on a scent-free control day.

The trick seems to be to smell a food long enough to push through your initial craving. In one laboratory experiment, the researchers exposed about 250 people to either cookie or strawberry scents for varying lengths of time, then asked them which food they would be more likely to choose. Almost 45% of people who were exposed to the cookie scent for less than 30 seconds said they would choose the treat over strawberries — but only 22% of those exposed for longer than two minutes opted for the indulgent choice. (The reverse was true for people exposed to strawberry scent, but the difference was not statistically significant.)

In another experiment, using the scents of pizza and apples, the researchers again found that lengthier exposures steered people away from the junk food option.

This result suggests that a delicious smell can pique a craving, but over time, it can also be enough to satisfy it, the researchers theorize. “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,” they write.

Next time you go out to eat, pause before you order. It may be just what you need to make the healthier choice.

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