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A signature scent is simultaneously one of the most important and underrated decisions in a person’s life. Impelling others to associate a fragrance with your memory can be a subtle power move, an unconscious posturing, a firm handshake — if the correct scent is chosen. Perfume can impress, or irritate, in mere seconds.
Some choose to live a life of florals, while others prefer a sophisticated musk. My methods of scent seduction lie in gourmand: perfumes with edible, dessert-inspired fragrance notes like vanilla, coffee, chocolate, honey, caramel, whiskey, and cotton candy. I reveled in the fact that strangers and friends alike would frequently comment on how I smelled like a birthday cake. Eventually, I became a gourmand fragrance connoisseur, and it could be blamed on none other than one Jessica Simpson.
In 2004, the singer and then-reality star launched Dessert Beauty with beauty industry vet Randi Shinder. In a press release at the time, Simpson said she was interested in making the dessert-flavored products because “every time Nick [Lachey] would kiss my lips or skin, he would taste my lipstick, body lotion, and perfume — and hate it.” The line included body shimmers, scrubs, lotions, lip glosses, fragrances (including one specifically made for the belly button), and a whipped body cream that came with candy sprinkles.
Everything was (questionably) edible, and I ate it up. My two favorite products from the Sephora-sold line were the tongue-twistingly named Kissable Plumping Lip Fragrance Gloss in Delicious and the Deliciously Kissable Fragrance in Creamy. Delicious was described on its packaging as a “warm Tahitian vanilla, luscious white chocolate, coconut cream, honey, and apricot experience,” while Creamy embodied a “soft French vanilla bean mellowed by buttery caramel.” Every day I made sure to drench myself with Creamy like my life depended on it.
Whenever I talk about Creamy and other cult-favorite gourmand fragrances, I see people’s eyes light up. For some it’s just a nostalgia factor, while others have the same intense connection to gourmand fragrances that I do. These are kindred spirits — ones who’ll turn up their noses, literally, at a patchouli musk. Ones who’d rather smell like a carnival funnel cake than ever be caught in the aromatic elegance of Chanel No. 5.
But what is it about gourmand fragrances that are so appealing? Do they strictly have to do with a personal nostalgia or something else entirely?
“Gourmand fragrances are warm and nostalgic, they immediately envelop you in a hug,” says Erica Vega, product trainer for Lush Cosmetics North America. “Gourmand scents evoke memories of sitting on the kitchen counter helping your grandma make cookies, or cuddling up with a hot chocolate by a cozy fireplace.”
Celebrity florist and fragrance designer Eric Buterbaugh weighs in with a similar thought: “People like gourmand notes because it is something familiar to them, which they can recognize and relate to. It may trigger a happy childhood memory.”
Mariya Nurislamova, CEO and co-founder of the fragrance subscription service Scentbird and the makeup subscription brand Deck of Scarlet, believes perfume is a subjective experience. “If you grew up with your parents owning a chocolate shop, you might be comforted by rich, sweet scents. Or if you love the way warm skin smells, then musk is your thing,” she says. “That’s the fun and the mystery of perfume — the brain processes scent in the same region where our memories are stored, so each person has their own intimate path to the scented world.”
The brain region Nurislamova is referring to is the olfactory bulb, which is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, two primary parts of the brain that are responsible for the development of long-term memories and emotional responses.
According to Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist and leading expert in the psychological science of scent, sugar activates the reward centers in the brain and releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in reward, reinforcement, and pleasure.
“Sweet is an innately pleasant taste, and by extension, we have associations to things that smell sweet as being pleasant and have that same kind of automatic positive response,” explains Herz, who is also a Demeter Fragrance Library consultant and wrote the 2017 book Why You Eat What You Eat. “In fact, vanilla-related fragrance is probably the most universally liked scent because it’s so universally experienced in a positive sweet context.”
Herz also refers to vanilla being an aromatic compound found in breast milk and formula. “From the point of view that our associations to odors are learned through our experience, the most universal experience is some kind of drinking of milk that an infant has while being cuddled,” she says. “That positive association of cuddling, warmth, and nutrition also makes vanilla and all the varieties of vanilla — like cake batter or cookie dough or ice cream — be very positive because everyone has a nurturing, warm, nutritional connection.”
Where did gourmand fragrances come from, anyway? While both Buterbaugh and Eris Parfums founder Barbara Herman point to Thierry Mugler’s 1992 scent Angel — which Herman describes as “that hyperreal confection of synthetic cotton candy, chocolate, and fruit” — as the fragrance that helped kick-start the popularity of gourmand perfumes, it didn’t begin there.
“Gourmand notes in perfume, like honey, peach, and tonka, have been around as long as modern perfumery,“ says Herman, who also wrote the book Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume. “Vanilla is famously used in Guerlain’s Jicky (1889) and Shalimar (1925) — and animalic civet lurks in both.” She points out how Jean-Paul Guerlain once said his grandfather Jacques taught him to like vanilla not because of its childhood comfort factor, but because “it adds something wonderfully erotic to a perfume. It turns Shalimar into an outrageously low-cut evening gown.”
What about people whose professions center on dessert? Are they as affected by gourmand fragrances, or the opposite? LA chef and pie queen Nicole Rucker thinks food-related scents have powerful effects on people’s moods and memories. “When people get that first hit of bread in the oven it can be very overwhelming to the senses in a positive way,” says Rucker, who owns Cofax Coffee and Fiona. “Apple pie, browned butter, warm milk, chocolate — all those things give visceral reactions to people.”
Would she wear a gourmand scent herself, or does she tire of those kinds of smells? Rucker believes the familiarity of sweet scents makes them accessible to a wide range of people but admits she would never wear a purely vanilla scent herself because she deems them cloying and adolescent. “My dream aroma would be preserved lemons in the mixing stage of preparation: They smell like fresh lemon oil, bay leaves, pepper, salt, cinnamon,” she says. Well, that sounds lovely. Maybe a professional baker like Rucker should try her hand at perfuming.
As for Dessert Beauty, it ultimately made its way to the cosmetics industry graveyard. In a 2004 episode of Newlyweds, Simpson’s MTV reality show with then-husband Lachey, the singer fell ill after licking the icing off too many prop cupcakes during a photo shoot for the line. Perhaps this was a harbinger of what was to come. Despite Dessert Beauty sales that at one point reportedly exceeded $120 million and the launch of two offshoot brands — the younger-aimed Dessert Treats and the Walmart exclusive Sweet Kisses — the company was hit with two lawsuits, and by 2006 it had stopped all operations.
After Creamy left Sephora stores, I found solace in Whipped Cream by Eau De Vie, a short-lived line of fragrances created by the beauty retail chain. From there, I turned to Aquolina Pink Sugar, a Sephora best-seller and sweet-smelling perfume I considered to be a more polished and mature version of the drugstore cotton candy body sprays I coveted in my youth. It was also a more affordable alternative to Hanae Mori Butterfly, which smelled like warm sugar, though vanilla was absent from its notes. Pink Sugar remains in the rotation, alongside other gourmands like Kat Von D Saint, Dolce & Gabbana Garden, and Shay & Blue Salt Caramel, which smells exactly as it sounds.
Not only are gourmand fragrances still popular nowadays, but it’s very common for cosmetic brands to incorporate sweet scents into their products. Too Faced is well-known for infusing cocoa and other dessert fragrances into its products. Ciaté London once came out with a chocolate-scented nail polish remover. Even the skin care brand GlamGlow has a matte moisturizer that smells like orange creamsicle.
While writing this article, I came across vintage Dessert Beauty products on eBay and decided to purchase the exact two items that were so near and dear to my heart. When the package arrived and I saw the pink-and-white lip gloss box embossed with what I always assumed was Simpson’s kiss print, all those early aughts feelings came rushing back. I quickly unscrewed the applicator, pulled out the glittery pink wand, and took a big whiff. The olfactory memories hit me like a brick. I was transported right back to the time when my favorite outfit consisted of a Juicy Couture “Queen of the Universe” tee and Seth Cohen from The O.C. was my No. 1 crush.
Years ago, at the height of my gourmand scent obsession, I was at a gas station paying for road snacks when the cholo cashier screamed gleefully at me, “Damn, girl, you smell like Christmas!” (This is the only kind of catcall I will allow, btw.) He thought it was my perfume, but in reality was my Secret Vanilla Chai deodorant. I didn’t have the heart to inform him that he was actually catching a whiff of my vanilla-coated armpits baking in the hot California heat. Long live gourmand fragrances.