A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, wrote William Shakespeare.
It appears he was correct.
The smells that people like or loathe are determined not by cultural experiences but mostly by the structure of the odor molecule, according to a new international study.
“We wanted to examine if people around the world have the same smell perception and like the same types of odor, or whether this is something that is culturally learned,” said study co-author Artin Arshamian, a lecturer in clinical neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
“Traditionally it has been seen as cultural, but we can show that culture has very little to do with it,” he said in an institute news release.
Cultures around the world rank different odors in a similar way, Arshamian said, but odor preferences have a personal — though not cultural — component, he added.
So, if you like the scent of vanilla or peaches, you’ve got plenty of company. Those emerged as the most pleasant scents in the study.
The worst? Isovaleric acid, which can be found in such foods as cheese, soy milk and apple juice, and also in stinky feet.
Researchers on the study were also from the University of Pennsylvania and Arizona State University, and other colleges in Sweden, the United Kingdom, Ecuador, Australia and Mexico.
Many work with indigenous populations. For the study, they selected nine communities representing different lifestyles, including hunter-gatherers and farmers and fishers. Some had little contact with Western foods or household items.
“Since these groups live in such disparate odiferous environments, like rainforest, coast, mountain and city, we capture many different types of ‘odor experiences,'” Arshamian said.
The researchers asked 235 participants to rank smells on a scale of pleasant to unpleasant. There were variations between individuals in each group, but broad agreement on what people considered pleasant or unpleasant.
Those variations were 41% explained by molecular structure of a scent and 54% by personal preference, researchers said.
“Personal preference can be due to learning but could also be a result of our genetic makeup,” Arshamian said.
The reason people in different areas may find some smells more pleasant than others is that those odors may have increased survival odds during human evolution, he noted.
“Now we know that there’s universal odor perception that is driven by molecular structure and that explains why we like or dislike a certain smell,” Arshamian said. “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 odor.”
The findings were published April 4 in Current Biology.
The U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders has more information on your sense of smell and smell disorders.
SOURCE: Karolinska Institute, news release, April 4, 2022