Scratch and sniff

Scientist behind the "meat patch" explains why smelling bacon helps you go vegetarian

"I'm smelling bacon but I'm eating vegetables."

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Trying to cut back on your meat intake? Try the meat patch.

Created by University of Oxford professor Charles Spence and a plant-based meat company, the deliciously bacon-scented patch claims to help fight meat cravings — much like a nicotine patch curbs the need for a smoke.

But unlike the nicotine patch, the meat patch does not work by releasing bacon into your bloodstream: Instead, it uses scratch-and-sniff technology, releasing the mouth-watering smell of bacon upon contact. The idea is that the aroma effectively tricks your brain into thinking you are eating meat, even though you are only smelling it. The aim is to enable users to cut their meat consumption for good, weaning them off the stuff much as smoker might start cutting back on the cigarettes in lieu of nicotine substitutes.

"I'm smelling bacon but I'm eating vegetables."

Eating less meat comes with a host of health benefits — for you and for the planet. But it's hard, we get it. That's where the meat patch comes in.

The way it works is this: You put the patch on like a bandaid, and then when you are overcome with a need for steak, you scratch it. And like a cruelty-free placebo, your craving should be soothed — or, at least, that's the idea.

British celebrity Tommy Fury models the meat patch.Strong Roots / Instagram

Inverse talked to co-inventor Spence about the science behind the patch, and why it could help committed meat-eaters go vegetarian.

The secret ingredient: scent

Spence researches multi-sensory experiences — how the brain puts together information from all of our senses — and how we can improve them. Eating food is one such experience, Spence says.

In 2017, he published a book that went into the science behind the experience of eating food — and that helped him come up with the idea of the bacon-scented patch. Smell, Spence realized, may be the key.

“Smell is much more an important part of tasting than any of us realize,” Spence tells Inverse. “If you look in the literature, you'll find people talking about 75 to 95 percent of what we think we taste, we're really smelling through the retro-nasal smell that comes out to the back of the mouth when we taste food.”

It comes down to how we design our food — much is based on what we think we taste, rather than what we actually eat, he says. That is why smelling bacon while eating veggies can help effectively trick your brain into having a food experience more aligned with the pleasure of eating meat.

In another promotional image, Fury tries to demonstrate how well the patch helps curb cravings for meat when vegetables are on the menu.TommyTNTFury / Instagram

“Clearly it's at some level an incongruent experience," he says. "I'm smelling bacon but I'm eating vegetables. Yet very often we do construct and consume dishes on a general basis where we will add things that only deliver an aroma to help make dishes more palatable.”

If we acknowledge how important smell is to the experience of eating food, then the meat patch starts to make more sense — and it could be just one of many such creations to influence food choices and consumption, Spence says.

By using smell as its main weapon, the patch solves one of the hardest part about cutting back on meat — resisting the aroma of it as it cooks. And for the patch, Spence decided to focus on one of the hardest to ignore food smells out there: The sweet, delicious smell of crispy, sizzling bacon.

"Some of our food behaviors would seem to be almost addictive. Like how apparently it is really hard to resist the smell of bacon."

Scientists don't understand why bacon is so irresistible, in part because scent appreciation is learned throughout our lives and not innate, Spence says. But he hopes that it is universally loved enough to make an impact.

But without further research, it is impossible to if the bacon-scented patch alone may not be enough to turn committed carnivores vegetarian, he says.

“Just smelling delicious food probably isn't so good for you,” Spence says.

“But like a nicotine patch — clearly the nicotine patches working in a very different way — I think it will resonate with the idea of ‘Can we be addicted to food?’"

Can we be addicted to food?

It is difficult to say, Spence says.

“In some ways we can't be, because food is what we need to live and an addiction is an unnecessary craving," he says.

"At the same time, some of our food behaviors would seem to be almost addictive. Like how apparently it is really hard to resist the smell of bacon.”

But whether we are addicted or not, Strong Roots and Spence's innovative work could have real consequence for human health — and for the fight against climate change.

A study published earlier this month found that eating two servings of red meat or poultry every week was linked to higher rates of heart disease and premature death. The findings added weight to another study published in November 2019, which found that cutting meat consumption was a triple-win for our health, animal welfare, and climate change.

Both studies add to a growing body of research that comes to one consensus: Cutting back on the carnivorous behavior may be one of the most sustainable and healthy diet choices you can make.

For now, the meat patch is being tested in cities around the United Kingdom, but there is not a clinical trial or product roll-out on the horizon just yet, Spence says. He will be happy if it gets more people thinking critically about their diets and how to be less dependent on red meat, he says.

“It’s more of a provocation.” A deliciously scented provocation.

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