Smells like teen spirit

A new study by Lukas Danner, European Sensory Network member Klaus Duerrschmid and colleagues shines a light on the association of certain odours with distinct age groups.

If you have some cloves in your kitchen spice cabinet, take a few in your hand, put them up to your nose and take a good sniff. Now, think about which age group you would associate with this odour, a youngster, an adolescent, an adult, or an elderly person? Your answer might be in line with close to 400 volunteers who took this test in a laboratory in Vienna. To find out which age group the volunteers associated with the odor of cloves, read on.

The researchers asked: which age group comes first into your mind, when you smell this odor?

A high-pitched sound might taste spicy, a red colour could smell sweet, but what does childhood or adulthood smell like? Klaus Dürrschmid from ESN member BOKU* and colleagues took a closer look at the association of odor perception with the stages of life. The study will be published in the journal Food Quality and Preference. The results not only help us to understand the complex interplay of sensory concepts and behavior; they also allow food manufacturers to develop foods that cater to specific age groups.

The researchers asked 397 volunteers between the ages of six and 75 to assign seven odors to four distinct age groups.  The odors were candy, lilly of the valley, lemon, cucumber, raosted peanut, clove and vanilla. The volunteers sniffed the odors and answered the question: which age group comes first into your mind, when you smell this odor? They also rated their liking of the odour.

Young like vanilla

The analysis of the results showed that odours were clearly associated with different life stages. Vanilla and candy were assigned to the youngest age group. The floral odour was assigned by the majority of participants to adults, whereas cucumber and nutty were associated with seniors.

Klaus Duerrschmid speculates that flowers as the sign of summer might be associated with reproduction and sexuality and therefore with adults. Nuts are autumnal fruits and could remind one of the transiency of life and therefore old age. The researchers did not find an odour that was clearly associated with adolescents. They might have to test more odors to find the “smell of the teen spirit”.

The fruity-citrus aroma of lemon was the only aroma that was not clearly assigned to any of the four age groups. However, the results revealed an interesting – although not significant – pattern for this odor: each age group assigned the citrus aroma to the next younger group. “Fruity-citrus odour might be the smell of the respective younger generation from the perspective of each smelling individual”, suggests Klaus Dürrschmid. This is not surprising. Previous studies have shown that the odour of grapefruit, for example, seems to make a person smell younger.

Old like a nut

A look at the liking score told the researchers that the participants assigned the sweeter, more pleasant smells to the younger groups, whereas less pleasant smells were associated with old age. The authors speculate that this correlation might arise from either our fear of old age or our society’s obsession with ‘staying young’.

To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study that investigates the association between odours and age groups. Future research with more odours and larger trial groups from different cultures (i.e. cultures in which the elderly are more highly valued), should shed more light on the stability of these odour-age associations.

Source: Smells like teen spirit: Associations between odours and stages of life – a preliminary study. Food Quality and Preference, Lukas Danner et al. 2017 in press.


The authors would like to thank ESN partner Symrise for providing the odour solutions and the sniffing strips.

All of the study authors belong to the Sensory Network Austria (SNÖ).

*BOKU Universität für Bodenkultur Wien, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, Austria

Text & Photo: F. Hübene, published: 2017, March 03