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New Research Finds Vanilla as the Most Universally Appealing Scent Across Cultures

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Apr 14, 2022

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People across cultures tend to find one particular aroma the most pleasant: vanilla.

Published in Current Biology, a new study looked at whether people’s senses of smell vary according to culture — and found that for the most part, most people like the same smells. Of these, vanilla ranked the best, followed by ethyl butyrate — a chemical that smells like peaches. Notably, the least appealing smell was that of sweaty feet.

“We wanted to examine if people around the world have the same smell perception and like the same types of odor, or whether this is something that is culturally learned,” said study author Artin Arshamian, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. “Traditionally it has been seen as cultural, but we can show that culture has very little to do with it.”

The results of this new experiment give scientists reason to believe that our olfactory preferences may be an evolutionary development rather than a matter of cultural taste.

The study’s finding raises the question of why we’ve evolved to gravitate towards these smells in particular, and the brain activity associated with them. Researchers think that these innate intuitive senses of smell may have helped early humans survive, in terms of detecting what’s edible and what isn’t. In other words, some smells are more pleasant than others, and exploring the evolutionary role these preferences play can help us understand more about the role smell plays in our lives.


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But the more interesting discovery is that people’s preference for vanilla is more or less innate. The participants involved in the research are as diverse as they come: indigenous communities who fish, farm, or are involved in hunting and gathering, in addition to city-dwellers. In other words, people with very little in common, and very little exposure to one another.

“Since these groups live in such disparate odiferous environments, like a rainforest, coast, mountain and city, we capture many different types of ‘odor experiences,’” Arshamian added. Contrary to expectations, culture had very little to do with everyone’s most and least favorite smells: it accounted for only 6% of the variance in the findings.

Researchers note that previous studies on the subject failed to account for adequate cultural diversity. Where there are differences in perception, it is less due to culture and more due to individual or personal preference — in fact, this accounts for 54% of the variance in the findings. The remaining 40% could be attributed to the scent’s chemical composition.

“Now we know that there’s universal [odor] perception that is driven by molecular structure and that explains why we like or dislike a certain smell… The next step is to study why this is so by linking this knowledge to what happens in the brain when we smell a particular [odor],” Arshamian said.

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Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Previously, she was a freelance writer and independent researcher working in the intersection of gender, social movements, and international relations. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.

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