People who smell bread do not choose bread more often. Wageningen scientists drew this unexpected conclusion after experiments with odours.
It is the prime example of aroma marketing: the aroma of freshly baked bread. It is something that is supposed to stimulate people into making purchases. However, recent research by Monique Vingerhoeds of Wageningen Food & Biobased Research implies otherwise, to the researchers’ surprise. ‘We did not expect this result’, says Vingerhoeds. She carried out the study, which was published in Food Quality and Preference, together with colleagues from Human Nutrition.
MRI brain scans of the test subjects did show an effect of the smell of bread: the reward system in the brain was activated. But when the subjects had to choose between standardised images of white bread, brown bread and cookies, the exposure to the bread aroma had varying effects. The aroma of bread turned out to increase the choice for cookies, whereas the smell of warm wood led to a more prominent preference for brown bread.
Vingerhoeds thinks that concluding that the smell of bread stimulates the purchasing of cookies might be too farfetched. Additional research would be required in a real-life setting, for example in a supermarket. In this experiment, the test subjects laid in a special MRI scanner and were administered aromas through a small hose in their nose while being showed images.
However, the researchers did clearly notice that to influence the purchase of a specific type of bread, such as full grain, spreading specific fragrances in a supermarket will not help. The researchers think this is due to most people putting bread in their basket or trolley without a thought. ‘The choice of bread is habitual behaviour’, says Vingerhoeds. ‘And we therefore think that odour has very little influence.’
With this, the smell of bread has joined a list of methods to promote the choice for whole wheat bread that were studied previously and which were discarded. This published research is part of a much larger project into stimulating healthy choices. Presenting whole wheat bread first in supermarkets was one of those prior studies, just like presenting it more prominently. But very little has been found that really helps to incite mainly people who currently eat brown bread to switch to the purchasing of (richer in fibre and therefore healthier) whole wheat bread.
Spread and toppings seem to be a much more important motivator than the type of bread, as the bread seems to be seen rather as the carrier of spread and toppings, says Vingerhoeds. ‘But we do see that putting whole wheat bread on promotion works. What also helps is to make whole wheat bread the standard choice, as people do not quickly switch due to habitual behaviour.’