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Trying to Resist Those Valentine's Day Sweets? Indulgent Scents May Trigger Stronger Restraint to Unhealthy Foods

Research from Associate Professor of Food Marketing Ernest Baskin, PhD, finds prolonged exposure to “indulgent food scents” may help you stick to diet goals.

Assortment of chocolate candies

Written by: Luke Malanga '20

Published: February 13, 2023

Total reading time: 3 minutes

Around Valentine’s Day, it’s hard to avoid the giant heart shaped boxes of chocolate that adorn the shelves of many stores. For those trying to stay away from these sugary indulgences, it might seem logical to avoid the aromas all together. But, a recent research study by Associate Professor of Food Marketing Ernest Baskin, PhD, suggests that prolonged exposure to tempting smells such as chocolate may actually make you want them less.

There’s a long-held wisdom that exposing potential customers to indulgent food scents will entice them to make purchases. Baskin and his colleagues wanted to put that to the test. Following prior research that had been done on the topic, the team of international researchers set up a series of experiments to try to sniff out the links between indulgent food scents and consumer motivation in consumption by dieters and non-dieters.

“What we found was that the popular wisdom actually doesn't always turn out to be true,” says Baskin. “Which means that the customers who these restaurants and retailers are trying to woo are actually being turned off from them to some extent.”

In one part of the experiment, participants watched a nature video and were then presented with images of four food items — chips, fruit salad, chocolate ice cream and a chocolate chip granola bar.

The results showed those exposed to the smell of chocolate while watching the video were less inclined to want to eat the “unhealthy” options.

“Consistent with prior research but inconsistent with current practices, this research finds that the use of indulgent scents can backfire: Extended exposure to an indulgent food scent decreases indulgent food consumption,” the study states.

When it's a longer time period, your brain winds up activating the association that indulgent consumption has long-term negative effects and 'I shouldn’t be eating that food product.'

Ernest Baskin, PhD

Associate Professor of Food Marketing

Baskin notes that it took a prolonged period of time for the “counteractive goal” to kick in. He hopes to perform further studies to better understand the mechanisms for this response.

“To some degree, I think when it's a longer time period, your brain winds up activating the association that indulgent consumption has long-term negative effects and 'I shouldn’t be eating that food product,'" says Baskin.

The research highlights how Cinnabon uses cinnamon scents in and around the store to entice consumers to come in and make purchases.

“If you smell their cinnamon pastries for a while, that actually decreases your willingness to purchase, particularly if you're someone who is dieting,” says Baskin.

What does this mean for consumers who might be tempted by the indulgent scents of chocolates and other sweets?

“The major takeaway is that you should really consider the long-term consequences of the decisions that you're making. That can often help you make the right long-term decision for yourself,” says Baskin.

So, before immediately feasting on those Valentine's Day bonbons, take some time to think (and smell) to decide for yourself if the sugar rush is worth it.

“One of the ways that you can remind yourself of the negative long-term consequences is through smell,” says Baskin. “As you wind up smelling the product for a while, you might, paradoxically, want it less.”

“The lasting smell of temptation: Counteractive effects of indulgent food scents” was performed in collaboration between Saint Joseph’s University and the Management and Marketing Behavioral lab at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University with support from the Michael J. Morris Grant for Scholarly Research at SJU.