A Gustatory Analysis of Scent

Lara Bhakdi examines the relationship between taste and scent

Even as someone who doesn’t buy scented candles, scents like pineapple pound cake, pumpkin pecan waffles, and banana walnut muffin pique my interest. My first instinct is to ask how a candle can smell exactly like those treats – I don’t even know what they all smell like as actual food. Beyond this, however, these scented candles prompted further research. For example: why are so-called “gourmand” smells being used in scent-based industries, why are certain food scents more popular than others, and where can I get a pumpkin pecan waffle scented candle? (Bath and Body Works, for anyone interested.)

“these industries are able to capitalise on nostalgia”

Like other sensory prompts, smells can evoke memories – the scent of an old childhood meal might call to mind your family, and certain odours might be tied to places you went when you were younger. It is reasonable to suggest that industries have picked up on this phenomenon and chosen to work it into their products. Therefore, gourmand scents might be a trend based on nostalgia, as Ceara Milligan proposes. Gourmand scents, like other scents, can also be used to evoke specific memories tied to one’s culture. For example, dishes that are popular in certain countries or cultures may soon be available as scented candles, too. Thus, these industries are able to capitalise on nostalgia – debatably even more so when the average citizen is doing worse, such as during the pandemic or the recession. Emma Orlow of Eater highlights this by talking about how smell and taste were ‘a privilege’ during this time; presumably not just due to the symptoms of the virus itself, but also due to the isolation from many external sensory experiences that came with lockdown. During and after these times, it seems only natural that people would want to experience all senses to the fullest extent, including smell, and that’s where candles might come in handy. 

The popularity of gourmand might be a cyclical trend, too. There were quite a few gourmand-related trends in the 90s: Orlow mentions “fragrant markers and scratch-and-sniff stickers”, while Milligan refers to food-scented “body sprays”.  But it’s not just the 90s; there’s also a significant nostalgia effect in the 21st century. When I went to school, I used scented markers on whiteboards, and I remember getting scented stickers when I did well. For my demographic, those smells may already be associated with our first years at school; I’d wager it’d be laughably easy to market a more toned-down, less artificial version of that smell to anyone yearning for those years. Younger audiences could be a valuable demographic for these perfume and candle companies, and these companies could be tapping into many people’s childhood memories with these new candles and perfumes.

There may be a myriad of reasons why our attention is on gourmand scents, but what is also interesting is how existing paradigms from scent-based industries can now be applied to food. In an article written for AirAroma, as well as a piece from SmellStories, these paradigms are discussed: in Western society, the kind of perfume, deodorant, and shampoo one uses is often associated with gender. Sweet scents, often floral, may be more likely to be marketed to women (1,2). But how does this translate into food? It might seem bizarre, but wearing a sweet banana walnut muffin scent might come to be considered a ‘feminine’ scent. 

There’s more: the scents generally associated with masculinity are less easy to “translate” into food. Some stereotypically masculine gourmand perfumes smell of drinks like whiskey, gin, and coffee rather than food. There’s another conversation to be had about the relation between gender norms and scent-based industries (and, similarly, the striking down of those norms), but even just the idea that the division between food and drink, as well as sweet and savoury foods, emulates differences between gender stereotypes and expectations is noteworthy. Will this trend cause even food to be associated with a certain gender, or will it strike down those existing paradigms so that smelling like pineapple pound cake is not tethered to gender? 

“scent-based industries might have struck gold with gourmand”

Whether more sophisticated or widely popularised food-based scents are to be created remains to be seen. Nevertheless: scent-based industries might have struck gold with gourmand, and the trend could help tighten these industries’ grip on younger audiences.

Lara Bhakdi

Lara Bhakdi is a second-year European Studies student and one of the Deputy Food & Drink Editors.