A surprising way to encourage consumers to buy healthier foods? Fill the store with the scent of something decadent. Researchers from the University of South Florida College of Business, reporting in theJournal of Marketing Research,investigated whether ambient scent (or “scent marketing,” a tool used to influence consumer decision-making) can have an effect on sensory pleasure.

“Ambient scent can be a powerful tool to resist cravings for indulgent foods,” study author Dipayan Biswas, Ph.D., explained in amedia release. “In fact, subtle sensory stimuli like scents can be more effective in influencing children's and adults' food choices than restrictive policies."

During the experiment, researchers used a nebulizer to give off separate scenes of healthy (apples and strawberries) and unhealthy (cookies and pizza) food pairings. The study was performed in multiple settings, including in a supermarket.

The finding: When grocery shoppers were exposed to the aroma of cookies as they filled their carts, 39% of items purchased were considered healthy. When the store was filled with a strawberry scent, fewer than 27% of the foods purchased were considered healthy.

Researchers conclude that prolonged exposure to an indulgent or “rewarding” scent induces pleasure andactsas a reward, so people feel treated even though they opted for healthier options.