Why do we love the smell of bread? UCD scientists find the answer

Researchers have discovered why the scent of a loaf triggers feelings of wellbeing

A survey found 89 per cent of people said the smell of bread made them happy, with 63 per cent saying it evoked happy memories. Photograph: iStock

A survey found 89 per cent of people said the smell of bread made them happy, with 63 per cent saying it evoked happy memories. Photograph: iStock

 

The smell of freshly baked bread is used in supermarkets to encourage shoppers to spend more while a loaf in the oven of a house for sale is a trick beloved of estate agents, but the reason why bread triggers feelings of well-being has only now been explained by a team of Irish scientists.

The smell is almost universally loved and promotes a Pavlovian response in almost everyone because it prompts “odour-cued memories” at a subconscious level which catapult people back to very specific points in their childhoods, according to a piece of research by UCD food scientists published on Friday morning.

Through a combination of scientific analysis, an extensive poll and focus group-based research, Dr Amalia Scannell and researchers from UCD’s Institute of Food and Health zeroed in on what people love about bread’s distinctive aroma.

They were able to detect over 540 distinct volatile compounds in a typical loaf of bread with just under 20 contributing to its aroma.

The key aroma compounds create between eight and 12 notes which create the familiar smell of bread.

Some combinations are to be expected, particularly the ones that create milky, buttery and malty aromas but the researchers also identified more unexpected undercurrents including cooked spaghetti, flint, green olives, grapefruit and baked onions.

Brain anatomy

“Bread is such a powerful trigger largely due to brain anatomy,” Dr Scannell said.

“Incoming smells are first processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to the two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory.”

Bread is a staple food which features heavily in childhood, which is “why it is one of those smells that evokes such strong memories, particularly of family, childhood and comfort,” she said.

A survey of 1,000 people, which accompanied the scientific analysis has been published to coincide with National Bread Week which begins next Monday.

All told 89 per cent of people said the smell of bread made them happy with 63 per cent saying it evoked happy memories.

Those taking part in the poll were asked for a word which they associated with those memories and 29 per cent identified the word “mum” or “mother” while one in five referenced the word “childhood”.

Staple in the Irish diet

A further 16 per cent conjured up the word “home”, the same percentage that thought of the word “grandparents”.

The survey also showed that in spite of the negative press it sometimes gets, bread remains a staple in the Irish diet with a third of Irish consumers eating it every day.

“As part of a healthy diet everyone should be eating bread and we are trying to dispel those myths that say bread is somehow bad for you which I can assure you it is not,” said Gerald Cunningham, the president of the Flour Confectioners and Bakers Association.

He said that over the last 12 months there had been something of a turnaround in the fortunes of bread and “there is now more positivity and more upbeat reports about the benefits of bread. It contains minerals, folic acid, fibre and is a great source of calcium and iron.”