To an American, turning twenty-one means more than adding a hyphen to your age. On June 8th, I got a call from my parents back in Rhode Island not only to wish me a happy birthday but also to pass along several warnings about what everyone associates with a twenty-first birthday: alcohol. “We trust you,” they said, “but make good decisions!”
My birthday week, however, played out nothing like my parent’s expected. I received three fantastic birthday cakes and dozens of birthday wishes, visited the beautiful town of Blois, France and the Versailles castle, and witnessed an unbelievable circus performance at Le Folies Bergere. Alcohol didn’t interest me, and for a moment I thought my parent’s advice about alcohol didn’t apply to me this trip. After our group took an excursion to Le Musee Gourmand du Chocolat, a chocolate museum complete with a chocolate workshop and demonstration, I realized that I should have applied my parent’s advice applied to my chocolate eating habits, not my first glass of wine. If I eat more than a few Hershey’s Kisses worth of chocolate I experience symptoms like coughing, temporary tightening of the throat, migraines, dizziness, and light-headedness. Over the years, I learned to live with this food sensitivity, and yet, finding myself surrounded by chocolate during the excursion did nothing to curb my cravings. As I usually do when offered chocolate, I ate far over my limit and dealt with my pounding head at the end of the visit.
I may have a chocolate problem–I might go as far as calling myself a chocoholic–but I’m not alone. Chocolate is one of the most craved foods in the United States (Heatherington and Macdiarmid, 1993). Although studies with dark chocolate suggests it can lower blood pressure (Ried et al., 2010), over-consumption of it can lead to health deficits like weight gain, or in my case, headaches and sore throats.
A study by Kemps et al. in 2012 offers a way to curb chocolate cravings through our sense of smell. In their experiment, they asked 67 female undergraduates between the ages of 18-35 to look at 30 images of 10 different kinds of chocolate food such as cakes, bars, and ice cream. Each image was shown for 5 seconds with a delay after the image. During the delay, participants continued to imagine the image they saw in an attempt to produce a cravings for it (Kemps et al., 2005). During the delay, the participant also smelled a bottle with the scent of water (the control), jasmine (a non-food smell), or green apple (a food smell), then rated their desire for chocolate. The data collected showed that when participants smelled jasmine, their desire for chocolate was at its lowest.
This study was the first of its kind to link non-food odors as a useful means of suppressing chocolate cravings, but what happened in the brains of these participants? Another study by Small et al. in 2001 analyzed the brain’s motivation to eat chocolate and found that the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain starts to becomes active when you take that first bite of chocolate and stays active even when you’ve eaten enough chocolate that it becomes averse. A different study by Small et al. in 1997 showed that stimulating both our taste and smell sensations activates limbic brain areas, which include the cingulate cortex mentioned above.
With these two studies in mind, how does all of this fit into the chocolate craving antidote discovered by Kemps et al.? If together smell and taste can activate the cingulate cortex and the anterior portion of the cingulate cortex is involved with our motivation to eat chocolate, then smelling a non-food smell like jasmine may be blocking something along that processing pathway between chocolate consumption and our motivation to each chocolate in the cingulate cortex.
Of course, this is just my own speculation. Kemps et al. did not go into further detail about why jasmine effect on the brain our desire to eat chocolate, if jasmine is the only odor with this effect on chocolate cravings, or if jasmine an suppress cravings for other foods. The study also focused on only one age group and one sex, therefore its results may not seem significant this field until other researchers conduct follow up research. Regardless, this still an intriguing study in how it offers a potential therapeutic for women who have problematic chocolate cravings or other eating disorders. Not only that, but maybe it could help people like me who simply don’t want to give up eating something that tastes so wonderful.
Kemps E, Tiggemann M, Bettany S (2012). Non-food odorants reduce chocolate cravings, Appetite 58(3):1087-1090.
Ried K, Sullivan T, Fakler P, Frank O, Stocks N (2010). Does chocolate reduce blood pressure? A meta-analysis, BMC Medicine 8(39).
D Small, Zatorre R, Dagher A, Evans A, Jones-Gotman M (2001). Changes in brain activity related to eating chocolate: From pleasure to aversion, Brain 124:1720-1733.
Small D, Jones-Gotman M, Zatorre R, Petrides M, Evans A (1997). Flavor processing, NeuroReport 8 (18):3913-3917.