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Sexy scents: The nose knows the best sensory stimuli

Wednesday, February 14, 2001

By L.A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Planning a romantic evening for your Valentine?

Illustration by Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette

Forget about spritzing on a little Chanel No. 5 or Drakkar Noir.

"It appears food odors elicit the greatest sexual response," says Dr. Alan Hirsch, author of "What Flavor Is Your Personality?: Discover Who You Are by Looking at What You Eat" (Sourcebooks, Inc., $22.95). "Get rid of the cologne and get some Good & Plenty candy."

Preparing a juicy steak for your beloved might be nice, but serving it with some garlic bread, a cucumber salad and pumpkin pie might be even better, according to Hirsch's research.

"It gives new meaning to the phrase, 'a way to a man's heart is through his stomach,' or maybe more through his nose," said Hirsch, a board-certified neurologist and psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of smell and taste loss.

His book examines how what people eat reflects their personality and features quizzes analyzing food likes and dislikes. One quiz even tells people whom they might be most compatible with based upon their favorite ice cream flavor or snack food.

In research at the Chicago-based Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, where Hirsch is neurological director, he discovered that certain food scents trigger sexual arousal in men and women.

In 1994, he studied odors and male arousal in 25 medical students using floral and perfume scents. The researchers also picked the scent of baked cinnamon buns as a control because they didn't expect cinnamon buns to elicit a sexual response.

"The cinnamon rolls turned out to be the sexiest odor," said Hirsch, who has appeared on CNN, "Good Morning America," "Dateline NBC," "20/20" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

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For more information about Hirsch's research, visit


In 1995, Hirsch conducted a study of 31 Chicago men ages 18 to 64 asking them to smell 46 odors and combination scents, including perfumes and foods.

The pumpkin pie-lavender mixture increased male arousal -- as measured by penile blood flow -- an average of 40 percent. The black licorice-doughnuts mixture increased male arousal an average of 32 percent. The pumpkin pie-doughnuts combination increased male arousal an average of 20 percent. The smell of buttered popcorn increased male arousal an average of 9 percent; cheese pizza, an average of 5 percent; baked cinnamon buns, an average of 4 percent; and women's perfume an average of 3 percent.

Hirsch also learned that:

The licorice-cola combination increased arousal more than either odor alone.

Older men responded more strongly to vanilla than did younger men.

Men who said they were satisfied with their sex lives showed a greater response to the strawberry scent.

Men who had the most active sex lives responded most strongly to the lavender scent as well as Oriental spice and cola.

No odor diminished male arousal.

In 1997, Hirsch conducted research to gauge women's sexual response to certain scents. He recruited 30 women between 18 and 40 and gauged their arousal by measuring blood flow to the vagina.

Odors tested included charcoal barbecue smoke, mesquite barbecue smoke, cucumber, cherry, lemon, banana nut bread, pumpkin pie, lavender, Good & Plenty licorice candy, cranberry, baby powder, sweet pea, parsley, coconut, green apple, baked cinnamon buns, peach, Oriental spice fragrance, grape, chocolate, root beer, cappuccino, gardenia and other perfumes and colognes.

Now, although no odor diminished male arousal, certain odors did diminish female arousal. The scent of cherry decreased women's arousal an average of 18 percent and charcoal barbecue smoke decreased women's arousal an average of 14 percent. Men's colognes decreased women's arousal an average of 1 percent.

The Good & Plenty candy-cucumber combination increased female arousal an average of 13 percent, as did the scent of baby powder. The Good & Plenty-banana nut bread mixture increased female arousal an average of 12 percent. The pumpkin pie-lavender combination increased female arousal an average of 11 percent. The baby powder-chocolate combination increased female arousal an average of 4 percent. Women's perfumes increased female arousal an average of 1 percent.

Hirsch has even formulated colognes called SA for Men and SA for Women -- the SA stands for sexual arousal -- based on his results. SA For Men, which is designed to attract women, includes a mixture of citrus, baby powder and Good & Plenty scents. SA For Women, which is designed to attract men, includes a mixture of cucumber, lavender and pumpkin pie scents.

The scent of a Valentine's Day favorite -- chocolate -- didn't trigger high sexual responses from men or women. However, don't dismiss chocolate out of hand. Its powers, when eaten, are more chemical.

Chocolate can alter a person's mood and change the way a person feels. Chocolate contains the stimulant caffeine and phenylethylamine, which is similar to amphetamine substances, and has an arousing effect, Hirsch said.

The euphoria of falling in love and chocolate may be connected because phenylethylamine is elevated during the early stages of infatuation and attraction. Since chocolate contains this chemical, both chocolate and falling in love will produce similar changes in brain chemistry, he said.

Chocolate is a comfort food, something people take as a reward for being good. However, it also has a checkered past. As illustrated in the recent film "Chocolat," chocolate has been linked to sex, decadence, sin and other corrupt and immoral behaviors, Hirsch said.

"Chocolate is the most craved of all foods," he added. "Women crave it when they're mildly dysphoric. They crave it, and it sort of helps self-treat the depression."

So, chocolate still has a place as part of any Valentine's Day celebration.

Garlic doesn't rate high on people's scent-o-meters, either. But like chocolate, it may enhance a romantic repast. Through research, Hirsch has learned that the smell and taste of garlic bread at dinner has improved positive interactions among family members by about 8 percent and decreased negative interactions by 22 percent. In fact, garlic bread most reduced the negative interactions of the dominant male at the table.

So, go ahead and enjoy the garlic bread, but be sure to brush those pearly whites when you're done. In other research, Hirsch found that married and single women want their husbands' or lovers' kisses to taste fresh, clean and minty, like toothpaste. Husbands prefer their wives' kisses taste like spearmint or peppermint, and single men prefer to have their dates' kisses taste like -- alcohol.

So, there you have it. When preparing for an amorous evening, you don't need long-stemmed roses. But a vase of lavender or a nice, hot lavender bath might feel wonderful while a pumpkin pie or loaf of banana-nut bread bakes in the oven. And be sure to fill that candy dish with plenty of black licorice.

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