ARE ODOURS UNIVERSAL?
Does culture play a role in how we experience certain smells?
On 4th May 2022, a study appeared in the academic journal Current Biology which astounded its readers. A network of researchers from all over the world had come together to answer a question that had intrigued perfumiers and academics for time immemorial: are odours universal? It was a global, Herculean effort, with the UK, USA, Sweden, Ecuador, Australia and Mexico all helping to find out the answer to this intriguing question.
A QUESTION OF THE NOSE
“We wanted to examine if people around the world have the same smell perception and like the same types of odour, or whether this is something that is culturally learned,” said Artin Arshamian, researcher at the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. “Traditionally it has been seen as cultural, but we can show that culture has very little to do with it. 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.”
To carry out the research, the scientists gathered data from ten different groups. They included indigenous groups that had never tasted or smelled things outside of their own cultures, people living in cities, and those who lived by the sea, to name but three. Participants were given smells to rank. There was, it soon became clear, an obvious clear frontrunner.
Vanilla – the bean pod of the orchid plant – came in at the top spot in the study. Peaches came second. The smell that was universally detested was isovaleric acid, which can be found in milk and cheese as well as smelly socks.
What smells we like or dislike is primarily determined by the structure of the odour molecule. It is not our experience of vanilla that makes us like it – it is simply that the olfactory receptors find the structure of some odours more agreeable. Odours really are universal.
It also hardly surprises us that people would love the warm, spicy notes of the vanilla orchid. After all we’ve used it in some of our most best-selling scents for years.
HOW TO SMELL YOUR VERY BEST
We’ve selected five of our best vanilla-threaded scents so you can make sure you always smell your absolute best.
This women’s fragrance was launched two decades ago and has top notes of nectarine. It has a pleasing tail of violet and vanilla as well as a musky base of sandalwood and amber.
Part of our oriental collection, this begins with a fiery start of cardamon, and pimento followed by the softer undertones of vanilla and cashmere and salted caramel. It takes you on a truly unexpected journey.
This unisex fragrance is a heady affair. Named for the village of Halfeti, where roses rise from the banks of the Euphrates River, it is rich in Turkish rose, vanilla, oud and leather.
Named after one of the last clipper ships, Lothair is based on those most sought after spoils of shipwrecks and trades: Juniper, fig milk, vanilla and ambergris combine with a heart note of black tea.
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