Pass the (Stinky) Cheese, Please!

This week, the warm weather got me thinking about vacation. But with actual travel plans still a few weeks away, I made do with a mini-staycation: a long, lazy French style picnic in the park. And by French-style, I mean a picnic with a heavy emphasis on BREAD and CHEESE. The baguette was so good and the cheese so creamy, that if squinted a bit, I could almost believe that I was picnicing in the Jardin de Luxembourg, in Paris.

The experience got me pondering cheese as, really, a joyful mystery of life. How is it that cheese can be so stinky but we like it so much? Luckily, science has an answer. 

The notable cheese stench comes from bacteria growing on the cheese. For instance, Époisses de Bourgogne is French cheese with a particularly noticable ...aroma, which is caused because of a brining process: the outside of the cheese is washed in brine when it is made, thereby attracting more bacteria to the rind of the cheese. This process gives the cheese its signature color, flavor, and, of course, smell. A more well-known washed-rind cheese is Comté. Blue cheeses also undergo a process to encourage the growth of bacteria; instead of getting washed, blue cheese is punctured. Resulting porousness gives bacteria lots of hospitable places, which become visible as the distinctive blue lines. 

But, how are these stinky cheeses so delicious? Scientists explain this with a phenomenon called 'backwards smelling.' Essentially, when you eat the cheese, it's aroma molecules are released and hit receptors in the back of your nose, which interpret them differently than receptors at the front your nose. Rather than interpreting the molecules as 'stinky', your brain alters its interpretation to be more compatible with the creamy input from your taste buds. And so, cheese earns a special stink-exception from our sensory system. 

Deconstructing the Scent of Chocolate

Today, February 15, is one of my favorite unofficial holidays. As the day after all the Valentine drama, today is the day when stores massively mark down all chocolate that is heart-shaped or wrapped in pink paper. Perhaps surpassed only by November 1, today is the best day for affordable gluttony. (Or if one chooses to focus on the numerous reports about the myriad of benefits from chocolate, then today could be viewed as an opportunity to stock up on healthy essentials.)

One of the most enticing ways that chocolate shops draw in customers is with their amazing scent. How to even describe the scent of melting chocolate?

Peter Schieberle and the research team at the German Research Center for Food Chemistry have spent a lot of time trying answer precisely this question. As Schieberle explained during an interview with Scientific American, the scent is predominantly linked to the roasting and fermenting stages of making chocolate. Similar to with beer or coffee, the fermenting process excites molecules within the chocolate to become more volatile and aroma-producing.

And just how many types of molecules are involved in the 'scent' of chocolate? According to Schieberle, there are more than 600 molecules involved, and not all of them are pleasant smelling. For instance, when isolated, a few of the molecules match the scent of boiled cabbage. However, there are 25 types of molecules which dominate the 'chocolate scent' and create the irresitable scent that we know and love!

It Smells Like Snow

The Gilmore Girls revival began last month with Lorelai Gilmore demonstrating olfactory skills worthy of the Weather Channel, as she excitedly proclaimed ‘I smell snow!’ Which got me wondering…can people actually predict use scent to predict weather?

Winter in general is a bit of subdued time for our noses. Odor molecules are much more excitable and easily transportable in warmer weather. Higher temperatures effectively induce more odor molecules into the air, and therefore make more molecules available for detection by our noses. For instance, consider hot coffee versus iced coffee. With a great cup of hot coffee, you can smell dozens of different odor molecules, which blend together for the rich coffee scent that we love. In contrast, only a fraction of those scents are noticeable with iced coffee. A similar effect happens on a larger scale in wintertime: the environment gets colder, and so there are fewer perceptible odors around. The ‘scent’ of winter is almost a lack of scent.

However, there’s another interesting effect happening here, relating to humidity changes! Humidity factors into the ‘winter’ smell in two ways. Firstly, you know that ‘crisp’ scent of fresh winter air? Well, that is the effect of your body warming and humidifying air, to make it the right temperature to enter our lungs, with the side benefit of a menthol-like feeling. Secondly, snowfall occurs when the humidity levels rise above the atmosphere’s maximum holding levels. Really perceptive noses can notice this humidity rise.

So, maybe Lorelai Gilmore really can smell when snow is coming.

Scent Storyingtelling, the Old-Fashioned Way

We are so excited this week about the upcoming Future of Storytelling Festival in NYC, where we're exhibiting our awesome first digital scent film, Alex in Wonderland! It was produced by the super talented Maya Sanbar and works in harmony with Cyrano+Natural Moods Vocabulary. If you're in New York, check it in person on October 7-9th!

All this hard work and thinking about storytelling has reminded me of the 'multi-sensorial' children's books from yesteryear: scratch-and-sniffs. When I was growing up, I literally thought that they were the most magical things. But, of course, there's a scientific reason to explain them.

Scratch-and-sniff works by microencapsulation. Basically, on a micro scale, the odor-generating chemical is encased by plastic or gelatin spheres. Then, when you scratch a book or sticker that has been coated by the spheres, you break open a few of of these spheres and--voila--scent emerges! Of course, after a few uses, all of the spheres are used up, and so the scent fades. Scratch-and-sniff has been used in a multitude of applications, from training materials about methane gas leaks to some classic children's stories. 

And hopefully, the Storytelling Festival and Alex in Wonderland are the first hints of what this generation of children will think of when they consider multi-sensory storytelling!

Nothing beats the scent of fresh coffee in the morning

As we move towards fall, and the days get shorter and crisper, it seems about time for that annual beverage migration: away from the iced coffee, and returning to the traditional morning cup of hot, fresh coffee. 

For me, possibly the best part of hot coffee is the smell. Nothing inspires me to roll out of bed and face the day quite as well as the wafting scent of coffee. And now, research shows that there is a scientific reason for this little boost.

Researchers in South Korea claim that the scent of coffee reactivates certain genes which are suppressed by sleep-deprivation, thereby waking you up. Furthermore, coffee has been shown to be one of the most complex scents in our everyday lives, actually containing more than 800 compounds which contribute to our impressions of 'the smell of coffee.' Therefore, it is likely a combination of these compounds which has this invigorating effect.

So, next time you need a morning wake-up or a mid-afternoon boost, skip the caffeine and just try a sniff of Cyrano coffee instead!

Why does chocolate+vanilla remind me of my grandmother?

Fresh cut grass reminds me of playing outside as a kid while my dad cut the grass on Sundays.

Chocolate mixed with a hint of natural vanilla reminds me of the cookies that my grandmother used to bake when my parents were gone and she was babysitting.

Burnt hair reminds me of that one time in high school chemistry class.

The way that scent can so quickly trigger a memory is actually a well-documented phenomenon, called the Proust Phenomenon.  Marcel Proust first wrote about this in Remembrance of Things Past, in which he describes how the scent of a Madeleine cookie dipped into a cup of tea inevitably reminds him of moments in his childhood when his mother and aunt served a similar snack. The slightly more scientific name for it is an "odor-evoked autobiographical memory."

But, why does this happen?

Scientific studies show that scent enters your body via the olfactory bulb, and then enters your brain very quickly--it takes only two nerve synapses for scent information to enter your brain, as compared to up to sixteen synapses for visual information to enter. And, unlike other sensory information, this scent data begins in the amygdala and hippocampus, two regions of the brain which primarily deal with memory. Therefore, this link between your hippocampus and your olfactory ('smell') system is the likely explanation for scent triggering old memories!

What scents trigger certain memories for you? Feel free to share in the comments!

Why does sunscreen smell like that?

For me, the thought of summer always cues the feeling of sand between my toes, the taste of fresh watermelon, and the scent of sunscreen.

But why does sunscreen smell like that?

People have been getting sunburnt since the ancient times. Ancient Greek documentation even mentions the use of sun-shielding clothing and veils to try to prevent this. After all, this was the society where Helen’s fair skin launched a thousand ships...avoiding a tan was highly prized.

Unsurprisingly, some ancient civilizations developed their own sunscreen. For instance, the ancient Egyptians used a combination of aloe vera, calcite, clay, and herbs as their sun protection. Of course, this smelled nothing like our current sunscreens!

The sunscreen that we are accustomed to originates from a few inventors in the 1930s and 1940s. Firstly, in 1936, HaMilton Blake, a South Australian chemist, made a sunburn cream; it was refined by chemist Eugene Schueller, future founder of L’Oreal, and hit the market that year. In parallel, hiker and chemistry student Franz Greiter was sunburnt while climbing Mount Piz Buin, inspiring him to develop the first generation of the Piz Buin sunscreen that we know today.

But the man who can be most credited with the sunscreen scent that we know today is US military airman Benjamin Green, who developed a petroleum-based jelly to protect himself and his comrades while serving in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war, he improved the formulation with cocoa butter, coconut oil and a hint of jasmine. There was the original sunscreen scent!

And Green’s suncream became the original formula for Coppertone sunscreen, thereby spreading that scent of summer to millions of beachgoers.

The Story of Vapor Communications

We began with the idea that our digital lives are missing something fundamental, that we would live healthier, more fulfilled lives, should all of our senses work for us, not just two.  Scent is the most emotive of all sensory signals. Others have tried to bring scent into digital communications. We decided to make it happen.

The idea, first developed by Harvard Professor David Edwards and his student Rachel Field at Harvard University, took shape at Le Laboratoire in Paris with a first exhibition, Virtual Coffee, in the summer 2013. We started our company in the fall 2013, were joined in early 2015 by experienced tech entrepreneur Don Zereski, and more recently, by Brendan Regan, and by our CEO Denis Terrien.