Sunday, June 28, 2015

Perceptions of Sweetness: Is it Only in Your Sugar-Bowl?

It seems like sweetness is indeed de riguer in modern perfumery, the sine qua non of commercial success as endless sales of La vie Est Belle, Flowerbomb and Prada Candy, say. I dare you to find something as bitter as—say—Piguet's Bandit eau de parfum or Chanel No.19 eau de toilette in the production of the last 15 years.


Even forms of perfume which do not lend themselves to the culinary, such as the powdery softness of contemporary "lipstick smelling perfumes" built on "makeup-like" accords (enter Lipstick Rose, Chloe Love, Flower by Kenzo with their abundance of ionones) or the soapy aldehydic glow of the lathered soapy fragrances, such as Narciso Rodriguez Essence, exhibit a sweet tooth. Which serves as the springboard of another thought.

What if sweet notes were always popular, merely set in a different context?

This is the core of my article on Fragrantica, Perceptions of Sweetness: Facets & Surprises, where I investigate the many nuances of "sweet" in fragrances, both vintages such as Chanel No.5 or No.22 and modern ones such as the ones named above. I also pose a question as to what you perceive as sweet and whether it has anything to do with flavor preferences or hard-wiring in the brain. 
You're welcome to comment either there or here. 

Related reading on Perfume Shrine:


  1. Interesting piece as usual. Sugar per se need not have a particular smell, but we associate it unconsciously with so many things, from fruits to chocolate to caramel. Unfortunately, the association perfumery seems most interested in right now is the pink cupcake one, particularly successful at least this side of the ocean. It's curious as well that this trend seems to persist even when fashionable culinary trends are moving elsewhere - with sugar now blamed for all diseases and the interest in carb free diets. Yet those same women who would not eat a piece of cake are fine wearing one.

    But I suspect sugar in perfumes works best, commercially, when marketing doesn't go overboard. After all, who would willingly want to smell like a cake? Pretend it's fashionable designer, and there you go. One gets the sugar, adn the illusion to wear luxury.


    1. Thanks M!

      Overall good point about discrepancy between sugar demonization and sugar overload in flavor and scent. I believe that one is fed off the other; women on a diet feel good about indulging in something sinful with no calories. (it's also promoted that way, if you can believe it).

      I have a relatively low threshold on sweet, so tend to find sweetness in many things. Not that I don't like sweet to eat though, just not too sweet, you know?

      Luxury is a fluid term these days. I wonder whether people buying overly sweet stuff stop to think about what goes into their fragrance? Probably not.

  2. Miss Heliotrope09:05

    Am not really a sweet person (ha) in scent or food preferences, & found this article interesting. I sampled a fruity/sweet perfume lately & spent the day feeling sticky (in a tacky way) & looking fwd to washing it off, and yet Chanel 22 & its vanilla sweetness have recently become a favorite - your comment on the animalic & smokiness being apt. Perhaps, to stick to food, it is like adding sugar to espresso - there is sweetness, but only to temper the coffee, rather than sitting down with a commercial cupcake.

    I think sweetness in food is continually pushed as the The Thing, especially for girls/women (there is a difference, even if much of the media dont act like it) - no ides if it is a hangover from the Victorian era "rule" that females, especially unmarried ones, couldnt eat things like game or "devilled" (spicy-ish) meats or strong cheeses - they are for men. Even the mass catering of rubber meat at many weddings gives the alleged chicken to women & the pretend red meat to men.

    Perhaps also the constant push against being allowed to eat if you are female, a sweet perfume gives you a sugar hit without calories is plugging being "guilty" of eating anything. (as an aside, an Australian food magazine earned my fury by continually naming their dessert/cake section as "wicked" - no doubt helping with eating problems).

    Could I even draw in the old "sugar & spice & all things nice?" - females are to be sweet in nature, behaviour, and so why not smell that way too. Perhaps the rise of the chypres & leathers & so on as the role of women in society started expanding says something about sending messages about identity for and by women?

    But also, sugar does seem to be added to many processed food, whether as corn syrup or other forms. Apparently to help counteract the loss of flavour with the removal of fat, as per last year's food panic, now the presence of sugar means we get a lot without knowing, but that foodstuffs that would not traditionally include sugar (or very much) are now sweeter than we would think. even desserts & cakes are loaded beyond requirements for added flavour -

    1. Sugar is certainly everywhere. I was consuming Frankfurters (with sauerkraut and chopped tomatoes) when pregnant because they were mild and I thought I was consuming a little protein, but lo and behold sugar blood work revealed they were mostly starch and corn syrup anyway! So out these went. Processed foods are full of sugars in one form or another. And not necessarily in any "wicked" way related to the taste, necessarily. The pay off for removing fat can't really be substituted by sugar and starch, try as they might. Fat gives a certain depth to flavor, I find.

      Sugar and spice and all things nice is indeed Victorian? It seems like the societal role of women dictates a certain blandness. Chicken is indeed a bit "sissy" for a man's man, you have a point. But interesting local cultural observation: Myself and SO were dining out with American friend and the waiter (woman) was proposing dishes and said to our foreign friend, "you don't look like the type for roasted pork" (I was, like, wtf?) Turns out she was right, friend was fond of chicken. We locals of course eat any spicy, fat, sinful meat....regardless of gender.

      No wonder that describing something as "bad" consolidates bad associations with food, nevertheless. Excellent point about "guilt"!!

  3. I do wonder if some of these perfume trends aren't simply due to the discovery of a new & novel synthetic aromatic molecule?
    For instance ethyl maltol is really what we're smelling as a note of caramel, praline, or burnt sugar in many of these fashionably sweet perfumes. Recall similar trends with Iso E Super, calone, vanillin, or the numerous synthetic polycyclic musks & nitromusks we moderns prefer to scent nearly everything with.

    1. Oh most definitely! Vanillin was the first sweet thing to really make a bang and then ethyl maltol made people really rich. Neither Iso E Super or Calone are especially sweet, though they're abused, but musks do give sweetness, as you know, and they're used in everything, even actual food. (Nitromusks btw are no longer used)

  4. That trend is probably going to last a long time, fueled by young people who are drawn to sweet scents. Many adults are too. Whenever I wear Le Labo's Vanille 44, there are compliments from all my male friends. They get very emotional over it, want to know "what is that you're wearing!" Sweet scents are not my top choices, however. My favorite at the moment is Oud Immortal by Byredo. It's fascinating and I don't tire of it.

  5. That trend is probably going to last a long time, fueled by young people who are drawn to sweet scents. Many adults are too. Whenever I wear Le Labo's Vanille 44, there are compliments from all my male friends. They get very emotional over it, want to know "what is that you're wearing!" Sweet scents are not my top choices, however. My favorite at the moment is Oud Immortal by Byredo. It's fascinating and I don't tire of it.

  6. miss heliotrope's comments resonated with me on this...and contemporary media definitely present women in mono-dimensional ways. you can be the "sweet" (malleable, unassertive--and by default--young) girl; or you can be the "spicy" 50 shades-y sexpot. not much in between, or much sense that one might be a bit of both, or something altogether more mature and deeper and complex!

    i see lots of younger people---teens to 20-somethings---living on a very sweet-heavy diet. cereals, junk foods, fast foods, "convenience" foods, soda galore. their tastes in food are mirrored by their tastes in clothing, television/cinema/games, and, perhaps, reflected in choice of sugary perfumes as well? maybe a good number of us simply don't want to grow up...

    many studies and plenty of personal experience confirm the fact that men, as a group, tend to prefer sweet/vanilla-based scents on women. not a universal, but definitely a common thing. personally, i find it creepy---i'm not a dessert, after all; not something to be consumed. probably reading too much into it, though...

    humans are biologically predisposed to like sweet smells and flavors. it doubtless helped us to find and consume adequate nutrient-dense food in the remote past. in modern life, it may be working against us, given the ubiquity of sugar in our food supply. i don't diet, and i don't think of sweet food as something evil (at least, not real food untainted by a mass of chemicals), but then i don't have a very "sweet tooth". i prefer vegetables to fruit, figs to candy bars, wine to soda. and i like robust, complex, hearty food...no pale fat-free chicken on undressed salad for me, thanks. likewise, in my perfumes, i prefer balmy/spicy/woody/green/chypre---basically anything but sweet/fruity---so the trend of sweet and fruity perfumes doesn't appeal to me at all.


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