You love sweet treats and desserts, but you’re worried about what they might do to your arteries and your waistline.

But when you choose foods that are made with lower amounts of sugar, salt, and fat, you’re disappointed by the taste.

What can you do?

A solution involving your sense of smell may be on the way.

French scientists say they have invented a device that in essence fools the human nose and taste buds.

Using this technique, researchers led by Thierry Thomas-Danguin, Ph.D., believe they are getting close to improving the taste of foods made with lower amounts of sugar, salt, and fat.

Thomas-Danguin, of the Centre des Sciences du Goût de l'Alimentation (CSGA) — the Center for Taste and Feeding Behavior — in Dijon, France, presented these findings today at the 252nd American Chemical Society (ACS) National Meeting & Exposition.

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Taste vs. health

In 2009, Thomas-Danguin and his colleagues were the first to propose the use of aromas to compensate for the loss of taste in low-salt food.

Using their device to monitor odor compounds in foods, they have isolated several natural aromatic molecules that could be used to trick the brain into believing that some foods contain more fat, sugar, or salt than they actually do.

“Consumers are not very inclined to consume low-salt, low-fat, low-sugar foods because they are less tasty and provide less flavor experience compared with the nonreduced products people usually eat,” Thomas-Danguin told Healthline.

When people discover that foods made with reduced salt, fat, and sugar are not tasty enough, he said, they will add table salt, sugar, or butter — and “the target is fully missed.”

“Consumers are used to a certain level of flavor in a familiar product, and they taste the difference when flavor is decreased. So they can find the reformulated product untasty and do not consume it — even if they know that it is healthier,” Thomas-Danguin said.

Read more: Get the facts on our sense of smell »

Passing the smell test

Aromas play a central role in our perception of food.

If you pinch your nostrils when you eat, you’ll rarely taste anything. That fact is why food scientists use chemical aromatics, essential oils, and botanical extracts to enhance the flavor of food and beverages.

Many people, however, after initially tasting these foods, avoid them because they dislike their odd or bland taste.

Most people know it’s healthier to eat foods with lower amounts of problematic additives.

"But those are the very ingredients that make many of the foods we like taste so delicious," Thomas-Danguin said. “We have come to believe that aromas can help compensate for the reduction of fat, sugar, and salt in healthful foods, and make them more appealing."

The scientists searched for a way to isolate aroma molecules associated with sweet tastes. They created a pioneering device called a Gas Chromatography-Olfactometry Associated Taste (GC-OAT). They used the invention along with an olfactoscan, which delivers a continuous stream of aromas through a tube to a subject's nose.

Read more: It won’t be easy to reduce salt in our diet »

Sensory sessions

Over 10 years, Thomas-Danguin and his colleagues conducted a number of one hour, sensory research sessions with panels, each with 60 participants from 18 to 65 years old.

Subjects inhaled aromas from real fruit juices through the olfactoscan while the scientists isolated molecules from the juice with the GC-OAT. They then introduced them one at a time into the olfactoscan tube.

As the subjects smelled each of these mixtures, they were asked if the smells contributed to their perceived sweetness of the fruit juice.

The preliminary results suggest that this new technique could one day help food manufacturers create healthier products without losing the taste, aroma, or texture of the originals, Thomas-Danguin said.

How do aromatic molecules trick the brain?

“The three chemical senses in the oro-nasal cavity are olfaction (sense of smell activated by many volatile compounds), taste sensitivity (gustation, salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami) and trigeminal sensitivity (tingling, pungent, hot),” Thomas-Danguin said. “They combine in the brain, owing to the so-called multimodal integration process, to form a perceptual object called ‘flavor.’ Food flavor is the combination of odor, taste, and trigeminal sensation.”

The French researchers demonstrated that the brain can compensate for taste loss with aroma.

In their early research sessions, Thomas-Danguin set out to prove that if the right aroma is added in the correct amount to a particular food, the brain can be fooled into perceiving that food contains more fat, sugar, or salt.

“This is a memory-based process,” Thomas-Danguin said. “It links to the synthetic encoding of food flavor as a flavor object. When you taste a food your senses are experiencing aroma, taste, and texture through physiologically differentiated senses, and your brain integrates all this sensory information into a unique sensory ‘object’ or a representation associated with the food source.”

Read more: Most Americans consuming too much salt »

Hamming it up

Here’s how the aroma of ham improved the taste of custard.

The scientists used flan, a custard, made in layers that had various amounts of ham aroma and salt. They discovered that when subjects inhaled the ham aroma, even though it contained no salt, they perceived that the custard was saltier.

Some participants even thought one variation of the custard — made with ham aroma and salt distributed unevenly in layers throughout it — tasted the same as a flan made in the traditional way, with 40 percent more salt.

“Once you perceive an aroma, your brain reconstructs the whole object so that you can tell about its taste or texture dimensions,” Thomas-Danguin said. “We showed that if you put a bacon aroma in a food product with a reduced amount of salt, the ‘expected’ saltiness contributes to the overall saltiness perception, so that it can compensate for the salt reduction. This is the odor-induced saltiness enhancement, or OISE, effect.”

“Food perception research is important,” Thomas-Danguin said. “We discover and test new strategies that can help to compensate, at a sensory and liking level, for the reduction of salt, sugar, and fat — both at an industrial level and at home.”