Smell draws consumers to the humble potato chip

Posted by Isobel Drake on 11th February 2009

Just a hint of the tantalising smell of a bucket of hot chips is often enough to whet consumer appetites. But just what it is about the aroma of one of the western world’s favourite foods?The appeal of their smell could actually be down to the range of different aromas chips contain. Aromas including butterscotch, cocoa, onion, cheese and, surprisingly … ironing boards, all combine to help make chips an iconic snack.

The research, which was carried out for National Chip Week 2009 in the UK, used laboratory analysis and human noses, as well as focus groups to sniff out the chips with the most tempting smell.

Scientists from the University of Leeds, University of Reading and Leeds Metropolitan University worked together to collect the aroma from cooked chips, then separated the different compounds for analysis by an ‘aroma-meter’ machine. Those that could be detected by the human nose were sniffed, and the type and strength of smell recorded. The findings show that those chips that are cooked twice have more complex aromas comprising bitter cocoa, butterscotch, cheese, earthy potatoes, onions, and flowers.

“Whether oven-cooked or fried, the humble chip doesn’t smell of just chips – the aroma is much more complex and probably explains why chips are everyone’s favourite,” Dr Graham Clayton, from the University of Leeds, explained. “One might not expect to find butterscotch or cocoa aromas in chips, but it has to be remembered that these are one part of the overall aroma. Perhaps these findings will see chips treated like wine in the future – with chip fans turning into buffs as they impress their friends with eloquent descriptions of their favourite fries.”

The research showed that the relationship between the potatoes, the oil, the temperature and cooking, as well as adding condiments or foods, affects the aroma profile of the chips.

“Like a fine perfume, chips can be made up of different aroma combinations, so there is always something for everyone and every occasion,” Dr Clayton advised. “Lightly cooked or undercooked chips were found to contain three simple aromas including bitter cocoa. A little extra cooking was shown to produce a more complex aroma profile, with up to nine different aromatic notes.”

Texture, appearance, aroma and taste were the preferred attributes of participants – in that order, although there were differences amongst the participants: men prefer taste and texture whilst for women aroma is very important.