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Vanilla is the ‘most pleasant’ smell, finds study

It’s an aroma familiar to many wine lovers, and new research has found that vanilla is among the smells with the most universal appeal to people around the world.

Vanilla was ranked as the most pleasant smell in a study involving 235 people and conducted by an international network of researchers, including those from the University of Oxford and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

This was closely followed by ethyl butyrate, ‘which smells like peaches’, said the researchers, who published their findings in the Current Biology journal.

Vanilla notes can be found in several wine styles, such as some iterations of Chardonnay or Rioja, largely resulting from use of oak – and particularly American oak.

More broadly, the study provided evidence that people share preferences for some smells regardless of cultural background, said the researchers.

‘Traditionally it has been seen as cultural, but we can show that culture has very little to do with it,’ said Artin Arshamian, researcher at the Karolinka Institute’s Department of Clinical Neuroscience.

‘Now we know that there’s universal odour perception that is driven by molecular structure and that explains why we like or dislike a certain smell,’ he said, although he added that there is a ‘personal component’ to people’s preferences.

‘The next step is to study why this is so by linking this knowledge to what happens in the brain when we smell a particular odour,’ he said.

In the study, participants were asked to rate smells on a scale of pleasant to unpleasant.

The least favoured smell was isovaleric acid, which can be found in foods like cheese, soy milk and apple juice, but also in foot sweat.

Publication of the study comes shortly after separate research found evidence that royal elites in Jerusalem around 2,500 years ago were infusing their wines with vanilla, which was likely imported from India or East Africa.


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