Smell the popcorn

Of all the senses smell gets the least respect. Sight is equated with mental clarity as in, “Oh, I see what you are saying!” Touch is the ability to be emotionally moved (“That really touched me”), hearing is the capacity for empathy (“I hear you”) and taste reveals a sense of quality and refinement (“She has such good taste”). Smell however, is generally a negative: “Something doesn’t smell right here” or even smell on its own (“You smell!”) is an automatic derogatory. As much as the other senses are lauded they are also analysed and understood but not so much with smell; that is until a new study which has identified the 10 basic categories that make up smell.

Taste has long been separated into five flavours that we can taste; sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savoury). There is even research to suggest that more categories like pungent, astringent, and perhaps even “fat” could be added to this list. We know a lot about the categories of taste but how much do we know about the odours that we can detect? Now, thanks to new research, we know quite a lot.

The researchers used statistical methods to group odours into coherent categories and came up with 10 basic odour qualities, some of which may surprise you.

The 10 basic odour qualities identified are: fragrant, woody/resinous, fruity (non-citrus), chemical, minty/peppermint, sweet, lemon, popcorn, pungent and decayed. Having identified these basic elements of the sense of smell the next step will be to attempt to predict how a chemical will smell based on its structure. Perfume companies have been playing with smell for a long while but this research provides the first really tight analysis of how smell functions.

It also raises an interesting question as popcorn has made it in there as a category of its own. Since popcorn as we know it has only been around since the 18th century (although in other forms it existed much earlier), that suggests that the elements that form smell are in fairly rapid evolution. Could it be that soon styrofoam, plastic and “wi-fi fizz” will become elements of smell as well? Or does that idea stink?

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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