The secret to boosting troop morale in Iraq, say US military officials, might soon be found inside the metallic foil of a package of beef stew. And later, similar packages may appear on supermarket shelves.
While nation building and peacekeeping are at the top of the military's agenda in Iraq, the Army is also mounting an effort to make soldiers' food tastier.
Army studies show that soldiers are undereating - a fact that distresses many in the Pentagon already concerned that American troops (many of them reservists) are overworked.
Why are the doughboys refusing some of their grub?
Military officials point to taste. Many of the Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs) served to soldiers sit in storage for as many as three years. They are nutritionally complete and safe to eat, say military officials, but many lose a lot of their flavor.
The military's new strategy: Embed extra aroma into the lining of the packaging to make the food more appetizing when a soldier tears it open. "It's our hope that it will entice them to consume the entire ration," says Lauren Milch, a physical scientist at the US Army SBC Command in Natick, Mass.
The Army's effort is just one example of a larger shift in how food professionals are dealing with fading flavor. For the most part, they are finding different ways to restore and manipulate taste, and covertly influence consumers' purchases.
Their primary tool: aroma. "There's so much literature now on the effects of odor on consumption of commercial products," says Ms. Milch. "There's great potential for change now in the food industry."
Studies show odor strongly affects individual behavior. Consider a study by the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation (STTRF) of Chicago of people dining on Italian food. Families who ate garlic bread experienced 22 percent fewer negative interactions at the dinner table than those who went without it. Garlic bread eaters also experienced 8 percent more positive interactions, says STTRF president Allen Hirsch.
The vital part of the garlic bread is its aroma, says Mr. Hirsch, because 90 percent of taste comes from smell. "They are probably thinking of their childhood and having a nostalgic response to the smell of the garlic bread," he says.
Given the power of aroma to persuade, marketers are making scent a more consistent part of their sales pitches. One of the most visible examples are scratch-and-sniff labels, tiny pads of scent that emit an aroma when activated by consumers. "If you're selling a product, how much more intimate can you get than having it right up under the noses of your customers," says Bob Biava, president of Driscoll Label Co., a scratch-and-sniff label manufacturer in Fairfield, N.J.
Once consumers smell a product, they are more likely to buy it because aroma triggers an emotional reaction - a frame of mind more conducive to spending, say experts.
Several brands of instant coffee include aroma that was captured during the refining process, condensed, and injected back into the container.
Many manufacturers have designed water and juice bottles in which a special aroma can be implanted, only to be released once the cap is removed. "We can make a chocolate drink taste much more chocolatey while limiting the amount of sugar in the drink," says Steven Landau, chairman of ScentSational Technologies, an olfaction-packaging technology firm.
The idea of embedding aroma in packaging is new to most consumers. But food manufacturers have been tweaking packaging for two decades in order to protect the purity of their product.
Twenty years ago, Tropicana discovered that its gable-topped orange juice cartons removed or "scalped" flavor from the juice by absorbing important chemicals. Polyethylene, the most common plastic used in commercial products, including beverages, is a top scalper.
"After a few months of shelf life, it's definitely removing flavor from Kool-Aid and Capri Sun," says Aaron Brody, president of Packaging/Brody Inc., a packaging consulting firm in Duluth, Ga. "They say the kids can't tell the difference."
Foodmakers' inability to prevent scalping, despite the wonders of 21st century technology, is a sore point for many packagers. "Ask someone in the flavor business, and they'll say it's the biggest problem in the history of mankind," says Mr. Brody.
The use of aroma to compensate for scalping will proliferate over the next few years, say experts, because the technology has matured and foodmakers are looking for new ways to differentiate their products.
Still, the technological progress has prompted a pressing question: Do consumers have the right to know why their food or drink smells so good?
"That's the million dollar question," says Mr. Landau, adding that bottled-water manufacturers will probably tell customers that their competitors have added aroma in order to tout their product's healthier composition.
But many packagers admit that invisibility is a key reason why the technology will succeed.
"Ideally, you want the perception to be that the product is so fresh," says Billy Abrams, president of CSP Technologies, an Auburn, Ala., engineering firm that designs aroma-emitting packages. "The benefit is so that consumers don't understand where it's coming from."