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An unconsciously perceived odour may have an impact on food choices

A significant proportion of our behaviours and food choices is influenced by non-conscious processes.  Two studies have been performed in this area, and for the first time we were able to show that a fruity odour (melon/pear) perceived unconsciously had an impact on  food choices in adults, guiding them towards fruits or vegetables.

Melon de Cavaillon.. © INRA, WEBER Jean
Updated on 08/08/2014
Published on 06/19/2014

Every day, we all make a large number of food choices which are probably driven more by unconscious than conscious processes.  During our initial study, we used a priming paradigm in an attempt to clarify these processes.  This paradigm, which is widely used in cognitive psychology, is based on the fact that the perception of a stimulus (primer), whether it is conscious or not, can affect the processing of another stimulus (the target) and lead to a change in behaviour.  In practice, 115 participants participated in our study under a false pretext so that their attention would not be drawn to the presence of a primer.  All the participants were asked to wait in rooms that had either been sprayed with the smell of melon or pear, or had not been sprayed.  Following this period of exposure, we examined the choices made by these participants amongst the foods available to them at a buffet lunch.  

 

Results:

We were able to show that an unconsciously perceived odour of melon could activate the food concept corresponding to the primer in a highly specific manner.  In addition, the results indicated that incident exposure to a melon or pear odour impacted the food choices made by the participants: those exposed to a melon odour were more numerous in choosing a vegetable-based starter, while those exposed to a pear odour significantly more frequently chose a dessert containing fruit, when compared with the individuals in the control groups.  The melon or pear odours could trigger mental representations corresponding to the consumption context of these fruits: "fruit or vegetable-based starter" in the case of melon which was often eaten as a starter, and "fruity dessert" in the case of pear.  The logical continuation of this initial work was then to study these olfactory priming effects with respect to food choices in a real-life consumption setting.  The results thus obtained indicated that participants incidentally exposed to a pear odour were significantly more numerous in choosing a dessert containing fruit during a meal eaten in the laboratory than those who had not been exposed to this odour.

 

 

Contact:  Centre for Taste, Food and Nutrition Sciences (UMR CSGA) schambaron[at]dijon.inra.fr