(CBS News) Researchers are pointing to the nose as the latest tool in the fight against obesity. According to a new study, people are more likely to eat smaller portions and feel fuller faster if their meal consists of foods that have strong aroma.
For the study, Dutch researchers tested 10 people between the ages 26 and 50 by repeatedly delivering a vanilla custard-based desert into test subjects' mouths through a pump. The subjects were able to stop the pump with a push of a button, which researchers used to determine bite size. Participants underwent 30 tasty trials for the study, but randomly throughout they'd receive a whiff of creamy custard in varying concentrations from a separate pump.
The researchers found that the more intense the custard aroma, the smaller the bite. Participants ate about 5 to 10 percent less food overall when the stronger aroma was present.
But researchers didn't smack participants' noses with a heavy custard stench to get this effect; the difference in aroma concentrations might not even be noticeable for most folks.
"Our concentrations were very low, hardly detectable," study author Dr. Rene de Wijk, a sensory scientist at Food & Biobased Research in the Netherlands, told TIME Healthland. "So the effect is quite subtle."
The reduction in bite size was small, the researchers said, but could add up over time. Conversely, if a food has a weaker aroma, a person was more likely to take a larger bite, the study found. The research is published in the March 21 issue of Flavour.
What explains this effect?
The researchers think flavor intensity impacts bite sizes because of a self-regulatory mechanism in the body.
"It could be that people are self-regulating, and that with a more intense odor, we take instinctively smaller bites to avoid strong sensations," de Wijk told TIME. The researchers also said it could be that the stronger creamy aroma made people unconsciously think the dessert was heavier in calories and thicker, leading to the perception that they felt full.
But people gearing up to eat a box of cookies shouldn't sniff a stinky hunk of cheese to make them feel full.
"Our aroma was a pleasant smelling cream aroma presented at low levels of intensity," de Wijk told LiveScience. "We have not tested other smells, but believe that effects can be expected when the aroma 'fits' the food, i.e., unusual combinations may not work."
But the researchers hope one day aromas could be infused with foods to curb portion size and trick people into feeling fuller faster.