Thursday, December 18, 2008

Aroma, Appetite, and Sex

Is there a physiological explanation of why some foods are found in "fine dining" establishments and others are found in fast food places? Is there a relationship between the work you do and the food you want to eat? And is the way to a man's, uh, "heart," really through his stomach? What about a woman? The science of olfaction gives us some clues.

Different aromas act on the brain in different ways before and after different kinds of work. Probably no one has trouble with the assertion that very few construction workers take a break for Earl Grey tea. Researchers measuring brain responses to scents with an electroencephalograph (EEG) have noted that bergamot, the distinctive aroma in Earl Grey tea is easily smelled before work of any kind, but is almost imperceptible after physical work.

Orange aroma is appealing before work of any kind, but not as appealing after. Peppermint is appealing after intellectual activity, but not as appealing after physical activity. The woodsy smell of juniper berries, used to flavor gin and wild game, is especially appealing after a day of vigorous physical work. Linalool, a class of chemicals providing aroma to basil, clover, grape juice, mint, orange peel, oregano, peppermint, red wine, spearmint, tea tree oil, thyme, and tempura batter, is especially appealing after mental activity, or during bad weather, but not after a workout at the gym. Stormy weather and physical exertion stimulate the appetite for “woodsy,” “natural” flavors. Mental activity or idleness stimulates the appetite for “comforting” foods.

What kind of activity makes doughnuts appealing? Dr. Alan Hirschsuggests that, at least for men, the activity most associated with doughnut aroma is sex. (It should be noted, however, that men were sexually aroused by all of the food aromas used Dr. Hirsch's study.) In a controlled clinical setting, a combination of doughnut and pumpkin pie odors increased blood flow to men’s sex organs by 20 percent. A combination of doughnut and licorice odors increased blood flow to the penis by 31.5 percent, and combination of pumpkin pie and lavender by 40 percent.

Men also are "turned on" by the aromas of buttered popcorn and cheese pizza (separately, not together). Men over responded to like vanilla, Hirsch reported, while men who claimed to have more frequent sexual intercourse also responded strongly to the smell of strawberries. Men were least responsive to the scent of cranberries, which may explain why cranberries are usually served at holiday meals where we serve pumpkin pie. Whether men should or should not combine doughnuts and pumpkin pie, licorice, and lavender seems to be a matter of good judgment and time and place.

Dr. Hirsch’s study found that women are far less aroused by food scents. However, a combination of the scent of a licorice-flavored candy called Good & Plenty plus cucumber increased vaginal blood flow the most. While men tend to respond to single scents, women also responded strongly to a combination of the scents of Good&Plenty and banana nut bread. Women were turned off by stereotypically male odors, especially men's colognes and the scent of barbecued meat. The scent of cherries also reduced vaginal blood flow.

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