Synthetic Aromas – Data Drain On Our Brain?

I posted a report on a chronology of how aromas went from all 100% natural to less than 20% natural in about 100 years. It’s intended to be a factual account of how it progressed. This segment is part of a series of blogs expressing my opinions , thoughts and observations about this subject; some of which may be obvious while others are not…

There is worldwide focus on synthetic aromas regarding their safety and composition. While this will be the subject of a few more blogs, I don’t think there is much attention paid to another glaring issue and that is the sheer number of aromas the human brain must now process.

Fragrant Rose

Our sense of smell helps us to understand and interpret the chemistry and basic elements of the outside world. It is also the one sense which we have virtually no control over. We can’t shut it off. You can close your eyes, plug your ears, avoid eating, refuse to touch, but you smell continuously with every breath. You even smell when you sleep. I suppose you could hold your breath, but that would only work for a short period of time without dire consequences.

Our world is surrounded by the aromas of everyday events and things such as flowers in the garden, the air after a rainfall plus the wet dog that got caught in the rain; a baby’s soiled diaper, freshly cut grass, clean smell of a bar of soap or a home cooked meal. Some pleasant; some foul, but all of them familiar, identified and accepted by this primal sense.

It is known that, on average, over 10,000 aromas can be deciphered by the human brain which means that you can recall feelings, physiological reactions and memories for most of them. For every aroma we inhale, a complex interaction occurs. Extensive studies at the *Monell Centre, have proven that we have tiny cells referred to as olfactory receptor neurons in our nasal cavity which translate chemical information from an aroma into electrical data used by nerves in the limbic area of the brain. This is at the core of understanding reactions to aromas such as the smell of bubblegum propelling you back to an event in your childhood, the mouthwatering reaction to baked bread or the fresh smell of flowers to trigger an aphrodisiac response.

Our brain is like a super computer, processing responses such as these for every thing our nose encounters. It is immediate and happens with every scent we inhale, whether we realize it or not. It is now roughly estimated that there are over 60,000 aromas which did not exist 100 years ago; most being synthetic. Not all are for the production of cosmetics and perfumes. Many are used to mask the unpleasant odors of other products, while some were created as a result of manufacturing new chemicals.

We are involuntarily exposed to and then have to process information on all of these new aroma combinations. Just think of the average person’s day; wake up to the aromas of fabric softener on towels, air freshener plug ins, shampoo, body wash, conditioner, hair gels, deodorant, face cream, body lotion and perfume, and that’s the first 20 minutes of your day!

Add in floor, tub, tile and glass cleaners, laundry, dish and dishwasher soap, because clever marketing tells us we need all these different products if we want to be clean. Everything else you encounter during the day has some form of aroma chemical mix that your poor old nose is forced to inhale, compute, decipher and send messages to your brain. Tired after shopping? You just encountered several thousand aromas which your brain had to register in addition to all of its many other tasks. You need only go back 30 years or so to see that the average person would not have been exposed to even a fraction of these aromas.

Our limbic system, the part responsible for much of our aromatic registry, is one of the only parts of the brain which has not evolved to catch up with the complex nature and burgeoning numbers of aromas in the last century. I am not sure what will happen to it in the distant future but I think it would be an interesting area of anthropological study.

It is also worthy of note that many conditions of the autonomic nervous system such as chronic fatigue, stress, headaches, migraines, anxiety and depression have sharply increased since the 70’s. I know that there are many contributing factors but it is also around the time that mass marketed products with heavy synthetic aromas started to bombard modern society; coincidence?

No wonder we’re all mentally fatigued. Pretty soon we will be suffering so badly with aroma data overload, our brains won’t even have enough energy to wake up and smell the coffee… And that would be sad, very sad.

Sandy Powell

*Monell Chemical Senses Center, a non-profit scientific institute devoted to research on taste, smell, and chemosensory irritation.

I posted a report on a chronology of how aromas went from all 100% natural to less than 20% natural in about 100 years. It’s intended to be a factual account of how it progressed. This segment is part of a series of blogs expressing my opinions, thoughts and observations about this subject; some of which may be obvious while others are not…
Can The Human Nose Actually Detect the Difference Between Natural and Synthetic Aromas?

This question has been debated, passionately argued, challenged, and ridiculed through countless studies, experiments and unscientific claims for as long as I have been in the industry.

Now, I must admit to a personal bias in favour of natural selection as I have been working directly with pure aromas for more than half of my life. I believe that I can tell the difference most of the time, though I can’t prove it scientifically.

Natural aromas are part of our whole existence and have been that way since humans took their first breath. Literally 1000’s of years of evolution and exposure to nature has been turned upside down in the past 100 years or so to where less than 20% of what the average person in the developed world inhales is natural. As a result, the now monstrous fragrance industry actively touts the notion that not only can we not tell the difference, but that synthetic is better for us and not harmful.

Getting back to the biased part; I have read many studies conducted in the quest to solve this argument, and from my perspective, most that I have found are sponsored by or somehow tied to fragrance companies. I have also noticed, strangely enough, that the results of these studies are inconclusive or favoring the “can’t tell the difference crowd”. It is in their obvious interest to push the agenda of synthetics. I’m no scientist but some of these studies seem to take a weak approach by selecting subjects with little aroma sophistication. Many participants have a self-proclaimed good sense of smell, which I find rather unscientific, not to mention subjective.

Would you value someone’s opinion on the flavor of an exotic expensive wine when they have either consumed very limited samplings or only poor quality? Would you ask someone to assess the taste of a meal prepared by a world renowned chef, when their diet has mainly consisted of processed and fast foods? Maybe there are scientific studies involving people with sophisticated palates and olfactory sensitivities who use natural aromas, I just haven’t found any valid or objective ones yet.

It’s not my intention to pick on the science community about this as some fascinating research in the past several years has been conducted by brilliant scientists. Uncovering mysteries about how our sense of smell functions, the importance to our health and links to some serious illnesses when it degrade or is lost are just some of the discoveries. I do believe the possibility of measuring this difference is a distinct reality; however I am discouraged that as is the pitiful, dark side of science, the funding is supplied by those with big bouquets of money in search of a particular outcome.

At the other end of the debate which has Aromatherapists and natural aroma companies, essential oil brokers etc. proudly proclaiming that YES there is a significant difference, and you can tell the difference because it’s natural; with nary a shred of empirical or scientific data to back up such bold statements. They also have a biased agenda.

As mentioned previously I find myself in this class. Although not scientific, what people like me have in our defense is years of teaching, educating and introducing people to natural aromas with all of the interesting results that go with it. My classrooms and clinical work over the last 20 years or so has been my laboratory. I have directly observed physiological responses in 1000’s of students and customers which are spontaneous and quite remarkable. The feedback from countless people who feel positive changes including the ability to smell with more clarity, enjoyment of nature and an enhanced taste has to be worth some points as well.

Exposure to natural aromas for so long has gifted us with the ability to sense the intangible and subtle physiological effects when inhaling nature’s finest. Oh, the experience of pure rose essential oil wafting its way through your nasal cavity, causing an immediate release of neurochemicals which trigger a cascading and uncontrolled blissful smile complete with little shivers up the spine and curling of the toes… Those who have experienced this know of what I speak!

If only science could capture this cellular interaction, we might have something concrete to work with. I’ve never had a reaction like that to synthetic rose. In fact, until I experienced pure rose oil, I hated the smell as my grandmother overdosed me on synthetic air freshener and hand soap.

Ultimately, it may be difficult to prove conclusively whether we can decipher natural from synthetic as there are many complications challenging both scientific study and individual experience. They include personal beliefs or bias, experience and memories associated with aromas, state of health, drug use, as well as smoking to name but a few. Then there is experience with common odorants and the vast differences in how we perceive pleasant and foul odors, regardless of natural or synthetic source.

Geography is also a factor. If you live in the country and are used to nature, your sense of smell may develop differently from someone who lives in an apartment building in a big city surrounded by pollutants. Thus, levels of aroma sophistication are quite subjective and can’t be adequately measured.

For now I continue to take great pride and pleasure in my life’s work of educating and presenting natural aromas to the world, providing opportunities for people to experience this unquantified effect. It makes every unscientific cell in my body happy.

Sandy Powell


1. Diane Ackerman, Author, “A Natural History of the Senses,” Random House,

Inc., New York, copyright 1990.

2. Effect of Environmental Pollutants on Taste and Smell.

Susan S. Schiffman PhD, H. Troy Nagle MD, PhD 1992

3. Beliefs Influence Perception Of Natural & Synthetic Odors

Rachel S. Herz, Ph.D., Brown University VOL.IX NO.2 I ACR

4. Odour Identity – 2002 Gary K. Beauchamp Ph. D

5. Making Sense of Smell – Monell Connection Paper- Spring 2001

6. IFF (International Fragrance Foundation) Sustainability Report 2010

I posted a report on a chronology of how aromas went from all 100% natural to less than 20% natural in about 100 years. It’s intended to be a factual account of how it progressed. This segment is part of a series of blogs expressing my opinions , thoughts and observations about this subject; some of which may be obvious while others are not…

The Insidious Erosion of Choice

mass of people

“The eradication of natural odour

plays an enormous role in transforming

a large number of individuals into a

homogenous mass of people with

identical preferences, behaviours and feelings.”
Kurt Schnaubelt, Medical Aromatherapy

I have loved this quote from the first time I read it. I think it illuminates a pitiful reality about our society. A relatively small but powerful group of companies now dictates what the masses see, think, hear, taste and smell. Many are following gleefully along, almost Orwellian if I may be so bold.

It seems to be at a point where we have forgotten what natural aromas are all about, and the many important benefits they provide. Personally I believe that the aromas and flavours we choose should be as spontaneous and unique as us. I want to be in control of what I want to smell and taste, when I want to smell and taste, and if I want to smell and taste!

Haven’t we had enough loss of individuality with watching the same TV shows, wearing all the latest fashions and colours buying the same packaged foods, shampoos, room fresheners, plugins and rushing out to find the latest perfume because some airbrushed model is peddling this stuff? I doubt they use it anyways.

I think that choosing our own food and aromas are a great way to reclaim some of our lost individuality and creativity while improving health and well-being. For those of you who ride the packaged food and cosmetic merry-go-round, here’s something radical to do. Go to the store, buy some fresh herbs and spices like basil, rosemary, oregano, ginger, garlic, fresh fruits, vegetables and meats if you so choose. Compliment with fresh cut flowers or aromatic potted plant, then, find some pure essential oils.

I strongly suggest that when shopping for such items, avoid the big box stores and focus on the small independent operators, local markets and companies with history of expertise about some of these items. These business owners may actually care about the quality of what they are selling and value you as a consumer. They usually have more imagination as well which may rub off so beware…

Then, go home, put your fresh flowers on the table, sprinkle some essential oils around to naturally stimulate your appetite, ( I suggest peppermint, basil, orange amongst many possibilities). Then cook a simple and delightful meal from scratch using the fresh fare, herbs and spices. For best results, enjoy with others who would like to reclaim personal choice.

I figure that there will be a small segment of people who read this and think “yeah, I already do this”, and another small segment that will see the light and begin to experience the empowerment of reclaiming personal choice and taste. The rest I am afraid will merrily continue on as they were; that is why they are the masses….

Bon Appetite

Sandy Powell

711 Yonge Street
Midland ON
L4R 2E1
[email protected]
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