When it comes to aromas, taste tends to vary widely. However, there is some general agreement as to what is a “pleasant” smell. A study published in ‘Current Biology’ says that this commonality is independent of cultural background. It has more to do with the structure of the particular odor molecule. Thus, they asked what would be the preferred scent around the world.
Vanilla vs. foot sweat
“We wanted to see if people around the world have the same perception of smell. Or if it’s something culturally learned,” says Artin Arshamian. He is a researcher at the Karolinska Institute’s Department of Clinical Neuroscience.
He selected 235 people from 9 non-Western cultures. They were presented with ten different odors. The preferred odor of most of them was that of the molecule 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde, which we identify with vanilla. It is followed by ethyl butyrate, which smells like peach. In contrast, the least pleasant aroma was that of isovaleric acid, something akin to the ‘sourness’ of cheese, soy milk and apple juice. Or foot sweat.
Participants from far-flung indigenous tribes from all parts of the world were included. Preferences of New York citizens from another earlier work were also taken into account. It took into account 500 molecules and yielded similar results.
It is not cultural
If the preference for a scent were cultural, the participants’ rankings would be similar within the same tribes or peoples. But this was not the case. There was great variation. The survival instinct generated by evolution also played a role. Pleasant smells were related to healthy foods for our ancestors.
“Universal odor perception is driven by molecular structure. It explains why we like or dislike a certain odor,” notes Arshamian. “Cultures around the world classify different odors similarly no matter where they come from,” he adds. The preferred scent around the world is not conditioned by cultural learning.