In spring of 2018, a team of Wageningen University applied to the call of the Lowlands music festival (together with New Scientist), to include science and perform a study during the festival. The ‘Oermens’ team was formed, and was selected to attend the festival in summer and collect data to answer the research question whether people remember the location of high-calorie foods better than that of low-calorie products: “Laat de oermens in je los: kies jij dezelfde voeding als je voorouders?” PhD student Rachelle de Vries was leading the study, together with NOSE member Sanne Boesveldt, and other researchers, as part of the Edema-Steernberg project ‘Why do we eat what we eat – how do we navigate a tempting food environment’. Months of designing, planning, purchasing and piloting different foods and their aromas followed, to finally culminate in three long and busy days filled with music, laugher, dancing, alcohol, food, and, yes: SCIENCE.
In total more than 500 (!) Lowlanders participated in our research, for which we created two ‘experience rooms’ or mazes, where people were guided by arrows on the floor from one food product or aroma to another. They were instructed to either smell the food aroma (from a plain bottle), or taste the food (from a bowl), and then move to the next. Afterwards, in a different room, participants were given a surprise memory task to test their location memory for the different food items, that varied in their caloric density (e.g. stroopwafels or potato chips for high-calorie foods, and melon or cucumber for low-calorie foods).
Results showed that participants were almost 30 percent more likely to correctly place the high-calorie foods than the low-calorie foods they tasted or smelled. This corroborates our previous lab-based studies, highlighting the often underestimated capabilities of the human olfactory sense, and suggests that human minds are adapted to finding energy rich food in an efficient way. This high-calorie spatial memory bias may have implications for how we navigate our modern ‘obesogenic’ environment, and could stimulate people to choose high-calorie foods by making these options easier or more convenient to find and obtain.
The paper is now recently published (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-72570-x) and received a lot of media attention: it even made it to nu.nl (https://www.nu.nl/wetenschap/6082735/mensen-kunnen-vaker-plek-van-calorierijk-eten-onthouden-dan-caloriearm-eten.html), as well as the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/13/well/eat/chocolate-memory-mind-psychology-calories.html)! To conclude, food and olfactory science can be fun, exciting, exhausting, musical, and be innovative and societally relevant at the same time!