The World’s Favorite Scent Is Vanilla, According to Science

Some smells are perceived as more pleasant than others, which means preferences for certain odors could have evolutionary roots in our past

An image of a five year old child from Tahiti smelling a vanilla bean.
Scientists found the smell ranked the most pleasant regardless of cultural background was vanilla. Antoine Boureau via Getty Images

The sweet and nutty scent of vanillin, the main component in vanilla extract, appears to be the world's favorite scent, according to a new study published this week in Current Biology.

From a list of ten unique scents, survey respondents from a variety of cultural backgrounds all ranked vanilla the most pleasant, reports Peter Dockrill for Science Alert. Researchers suggest there may be an evolutionary basis for the universal aroma preference, reports Peter Dockrill for Science Alert.

"Cultures around the world rank different odours in a similar way no matter where they come from, but odour preferences have a personal – although not cultural – component," says study author Artin Arshamian, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, in a statement.

The team wanted to determine whether smell perception was consistent worldwide or if people culturally learned their scent preferences. For the investigation, scientists asked 225 individuals from ten distinct cultural groups, including city dwellers, indigenous hunter-gatherers, and people from traditional rural farming and fishing communities.

Study participants were pooled from urban areas in the United States, Mexico and Thailand, reports Joe Pinkstone for the Telegraph. Hunter-gather groups from the southeast Asian rainforest, such as the Semaq Beri people from the Malay Peninsula in Thailand, and fishing communities from Central America's Pacific coast, were also involved in the research, reports Science Alert.

An image of a vanilla ice cream cone
Vanillin, the main chemical compound of the vanilla bean is mainly used as a flavoring agent and sweetner in beverages and foods. It is also used in perfumes and pharmaceuticals. Lauri Patterson via Getty Images

Participants were asked to sniff vials containing ten scents, presented in random order. Then, they were asked to rank each vial from most pleasant to least pleasant. Scent vials were transported to isolated regions by field scientists so that the team could get data from those with little to no prior exposure to Western smells, per the Telegraph.

The team found the smell ranked the most pleasant was vanillin, the main component in vanilla extract. The following preferred scent was ethyl butyrate, a fruity, pineapple-like odor.  , The chemical compound Linalool's floral and spicy scent—found in over 200 plants including lavender—ranked third.

The least popular scent was isovaleric acid, a compound with a penetrating, pungent odor common in cheese, soy milk, and sweaty feet, Science Alert reports. Trends for rating the scents in this order were consistent in all tested locations, per the Telegraph.

When analyzing the data, scientists found that the influence of cultural background only plays a small part in odor preference. Culture was linked to six percent of the variance, while eachscents' molecular influenced 40 percent of the selections. While individuals may rank smells in slightly different orders, the variation is based on personal preferences, not culture. Personal preference accounted for 54 percent of people's choices. Overall, there are similarities across cultures regarding what smells a person likes or dislikes.

These cross-cultural preferences for certain scents could have roots in human evolution, which would require additional research to determine. It's possible knowledge of some scents increased chances of survival at some point in history, a statement explains.

"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," Arshamian says in a statement. "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."

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