Meet our Editor: Andrea Buettner
“The human sense of smell is often underestimated”
Andrea Buettner, food chemist and aroma researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging (IVV) and Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg and editor of the recently published “Springer Handbook of Odor”, on the significance of odor research and the power of smells.
Why is the science of smells such an important research topic?
The human sense of smell is often underestimated and is commonly believed to play only a minor role in human perception. Our other senses seem to dominate daily life and people think that human olfaction is inferior to that of animals. Also, the idea of being unconsciously influenced by something as “animalic”/primal as smell seems to offend our concept of rational decisions at free will. However, I am often asked how smells and scents are used by industry to manipulate us. Smells are conceived to have these suspicious, manipulative powers, as most people find it hard to understand smells, or to identify and verbalize the associations triggered by them. I am convinced that deeper insights into how our behavior is influenced by chemosensory cues will certainly increase our understanding of human behavior, especially in the case of behavior perceived as irrational. Metaphors like the German idiom “jemanden nicht riechen können” [“not being able to stand someone’s smell”] haven’t developed out of thin air. Our sense of smell has not only been developed through evolution as a warning system for spoiled food or fire, but also, in several cases, an analytical tool to be applied in human interaction as well as for modern materials and processes.
What has been the most significant advancement of the recent years in this field and why?
The advancements in chemosensory, but also physio- and bio-analytical methods, have allowed us to explore the influence of odorous molecules on the molecular, cellular, and even neuronal level. But even more important is how the field is becoming more interdisciplinary. The boundaries between disciplines are fading, and this significantly impacts scientific creativity, not only in smell research. It is my strong belief that successful research is more likely achieved through cooperative teams working across the boundaries of disciplines.
What are the biggest challenges for the field still ahead?
Certainly complexity! On the one hand there is an abundance of novel, unexplored substances, on the other hand these molecules act and interact in the human body in a multitude of physiological processes. It gets even more complex when you take into account how the sophisticated processes in smell sensation are influenced by the cues of the other senses, such as taste, vision or audition. How scientific findings can be generalized from the individual to at least the majority of humans, without neglecting the deviations, is also a great challenge.
Which area in the vast field of odor and smell do you personally find most exciting?
Selecting one is simply impossible! But clearly the most exciting issues arise at the interfaces between disciplines. Take, for example, the characterization of smell emissions from various materials, such as plastic or textiles; how can our expertise on the molecules involved be cross-linked with the knowledge of those who develop or produce such materials? Understanding the impact of such smells includes psychology, physiology and toxicology. Which brings us to the question of how such smells can be optimized, reduced or enhanced, how substance formation and emission can be eliminated or applied. You see, the exciting topics are practically endless, as are the potential applications and situations related to smell in our daily life.
How and who can the research in this field help in the context of the grand societal challenges?
This is not a straightforward question. But when I think of the need to sustain 7 billion people and more, certainly the research of aroma and flavor will play an important role. The food of the future should still be tasty. But more importantly, in the context of consumer goods in the globalized world, the need to monitor and control their quality is ever increasing, especially with regard to non-intentionally added substances and contaminations, which may cause health issues. Controlling and avoiding hazardous substances requires a thorough understanding of the molecular processes involved.
You edited the recently published “Springer Handbook of Odor”, a comprehensive reference covering the various aspects of odor research. How would you describe the experience of editing the book?
Like a mountaineering expedition; it required a lot of preparation, was sometimes joyful and painful at the same time, it took its time and sometimes there seemed to be no end to it. But it was a great learning experience, which inspired a multitude of novel ideas and projects into different directions of odor research. And of course, finally reaching the top of this mountain, holding the book in my hands, was very satisfying. I received letters of support and congratulation from a number of “living legends” in the field, people I constantly cite in my publications and lectures, which made me very proud. But editing this book was also a great opportunity to get in touch with people I otherwise probably would not have met. This has already sparked some scientific collaborations!
What is the most exciting part of your current research?
The majority of my research focuses on the smells of the modern world and its products, more precisely, the investigation of new substances and their physiological and toxicological effects. But also the psychosomatic effects of (offensive) smell exposure, which are often being neglected. Here we do not only have to think of the consumers, but also of all those involved in the production and handling of these products, especially in places with lower work safety standards. While consumers in the western world benefit from cheap products, one tends to forget those involved in the production and their exposure to harmful substances. If we succeed to better control such products and to establish binding quality standards, we also improve the work conditions in the respective countries. At the very least, we can “sniff out” where something is wrong.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in the field?
The relaxing or stimulating powers of smell fascinated me early on. My father is a carpenter, as a child I loved the smell of cut wood in his workshop. When I had to decide which subject to study, I was happy to find food chemistry, which perfectly aligns chemical, analytical, biological, technological, and even regulatory aspects. And when I decided to pursue a PhD it was a rather emotional choice which let me to a field where you do not only draw purely scientific information from the molecules you investigate, but also smell and experience them.
Which is your most favorite smell?
Alpine stone pine, which reminds me of my childhood. My father made all the furniture in my nursery from this wood. And “Macchia”, a herbal, savory smell, like juniper and cedar all at once. This smell instantly lets me think of the Corsican mountains during summer time!
And your least favorite smell?
Green coriander-smell or (E)-2-dodecenal, to be more precise. I don’t really like coriander as a spice and once in the lab I spilled a bottle containing the pure substance, which made me smell of green coriander for days…
Anything else you would like to add?
People should be more aware of their sense of smell, start training this sense early on in their youth, not only because it is good to know the different smells better but also because it adds another dimension to the quality of life!