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Here's why most of us love the smell of vanilla and peaches and not sweaty feet

Peaches ripen on a branch at Chappell Farms orchard in Kline, S.C. in July 0f 2013.
Jeffery Collins
Peaches ripen on a branch at Chappell Farms orchard in Kline, S.C. in July 0f 2013.

Researchers from Sweden and the United Kingdom teamed up to sniff out the answer to a question practically every person has pondered at one time or another: what is the best smell out there?

They found that most people, despite coming from different cultures and backgrounds, find vanilla to be the most pleasant smell on the planet more often than not. Sour, stinky feet? Not so much.

The collaborative study between Sweden's Karolinska Institutet and the University of Oxford found that people share similar preferences when it comes to smell, regardless of cultural background. And according to the results, vanilla is the most pleasing smell around, followed by ethyl butyrate, which smells like peaches.

Artin Arshamian, a researcher at Karolinska and one of the study's authors, said humans may have similar olfactory preferences because it helped early humans survive. Which may very well explain why stinky feet came in dead last as far as appealing odors are concerned.

According to the study, the pleasantness of a smell can be attributed to the structure of an edible item's odor molecule 41% of the time. Simply put, humans likely enjoy many of the same smells, more often than not, because of a deep-rooted sense that an item is safe to eat.

"We wanted to examine if people around the world have the same smell perception and like the same types of [odor], or whether this is something that is culturally learned," Arshamian said. "Traditionally it has been seen as cultural, but we can show that culture has very little to do with it."

In fact, researchers had anticipated culture playing a significantly larger role in the results. The experiment requested 225 participants from nine non-Western diverse cultures, including individuals from communities with little contact with the Western world, to participate in the study. Surprisingly, scientists found that a participant's culture only accounted for 6% of the variance in the findings.

A less-than shocking revelation was that personal preference came into consideration 54% of the time. This explains why, as referenced in the study's results, a dish such as fermented herring may be appetizing to some yet interpreted as the "most repulsive [smell] in the world" to others.

"Now we know that there's universal [odor] perception that is driven by molecular structure and that explains why we like or dislike a certain smell," Arshamian said. "The next step is to study why this is so by linking this knowledge to what happens in the brain when we smell a particular [odor]."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.