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How Scientists Can Fool You into Enjoying Healthy Food by Using Your Sense of Smell

Researchers at the Center for Taste and Feeding Behavior have created a machine that can identify aromatic molecules and then amplify the smell of the ones that may be lacking on the taster’s tastebuds.
Photo via Flickr user frankieleon

There's nothing we can do about our evolutionary baggage. The harsh reality is that we love eating sweet, salty, starchy things. Foods with any or all of these traits are generally perceived as tasty, whereas the lean, nutritious ones we so vehemently fought against as children do not.

Chefs know this. That's why they use salt, sugar, and butter to make Brussel sprouts and kale more appetizing to unsuspecting, or perhaps willfully blind, diners. Now scientists are employing a similar trick but with a far different intent.


Researchers from French National Institute for Agricultural Research's Center for Taste and Feeding Behavior—which sounds like a very cool place to work at—have created a machine that can identify aromatic molecules and then, using a tube called an olfactoscan, amplify the smell of the ones that may be lacking on the taster's tastebuds, The Smithsonian reports.

READ MORE: Smell Is a Challenge for Professional Chefs

In order to test their Gas Chromatograph-Olfactometry Associated Taste (GC-OAT), the team were able to manipulate the amount of molecules being introduced to the noses of subject drinking fruit juice.

What they ended up finding was that increasing the levels of certain molecules made the juice "taste" sweeter, as perceived by the subjects in the experiment. In a separate experiment, they were able to increase the perceived saltiness of flan by introducing ham particles.

In both cases, nothing was added to the food or drink itself; it was purely the manipulation of olfactory information that led to a perception of the food tasting more intense. By extension, there is the distinct possibility that this technique could be used to fool people into liking "healthier" products low-sugar soda, low-sodium chips, or low-fat chocolate that don't typically taste as good as the real thing.

"If the consumers find these products not tasty enough, they will add table salt, sugar or butter, and consequently the target is fully missed," study author and Center for Taste Feeding Behavior scientist Thierry Thomas-Danguin explained. "I am convinced that through these strategies we can help people learn to like these reduced levels."

Who knows? One day, you may ask your server to bring you more salt or sugar for your coffee, and they will just hand you an olfactoscan tube.

What a time to be alive.