Why do health food stores smell like health food stores?
March 22, 2011 4:29 PM   Subscribe

Why do health food stores smell like health food stores?

You know the smell I'm talking about, yes? Whenever I walk into a health food store, (or Wild Oats, Whole Foods Market, GNC, etc.) there's that Health Food Store Smellâ„¢. It's kind of earthy, maybe a bit yeasty or malty as well. I must assume it's coming from the vitamins, but what ingredient is it in those bottles that's so powerful that the smell just permeates through the sealed bottles and into the whole place? Or if it's not the vitamins, then what is it?

In any case, I don't dislike The Smell; it's just very powerful, very unique, and very peculiar to health food stores. I'm just curious as to what it is.
posted by holterbarbour to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Forktine at 4:42 PM on March 22, 2011

Best answer: I'd assume because of the bulk food bins which are full of unwrapped flour, yeasts, spices and other dry powders that make good dust.
posted by clarknova at 4:42 PM on March 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

patchouli & unrefined foods!
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 4:45 PM on March 22, 2011

I always figured it was the bulk grains and vegetables. I used to work at a farmer's market in Atlanta that had the same sort of deal. If there's any sort of active bakery onsite, you'll get that too. A Costco I used to frequent (also in Atlanta) roasted all the coffee beans for the other local Costcos. It was sublime.

The other predominant smell at places like that (or maybe only for the employees) was the overpowering smell of lettuce/vegetation that had gone bad, usually near the compactor and dumpsters out back.
posted by jquinby at 4:50 PM on March 22, 2011

Best answer: Nutritional yeast. :(
posted by milk white peacock at 4:58 PM on March 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If it's vitamins you're smelling, blame it on the thiamine (vitamin B1). Thiamine is responsible for the odor of multivitamin pills, just as riboflavin (vitamin B2) is responsible for the lovely yellow color.
posted by Ery at 4:59 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

A lot of health food stores do a side business in soaps, cremes, aromatherapy products, etc. These are products with strong & distinct smells that you do not encounter in large quantities in other venues. I'd check for the culprits there.
posted by Ys at 5:08 PM on March 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

All of the above plus dried valerian root from the bulk herb section. It has an incredibly penetrating odor.
posted by pullayup at 5:23 PM on March 22, 2011

Oh man, it's totally the yeast. Yes.
posted by you're a kitty! at 5:26 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best question in a long time. There is indeed also a vitamin-y smell that I notice.
posted by rhizome at 6:03 PM on March 22, 2011

I think it's a combo of many things. The natural soaps and essential oils have a distinct odor which permeates the entire store. Combine that with the slight smell coming from the bulk bins (yeasty, oaty). And let's not forget the natural cleaning products that are used throughout the entire store, some of which can smell earthy or herbally.

don't forget to add in the hippies who work there!

Yeah, no. Stupid answer. I have a very strong sense of smell, and I rarely smell workers as they walk past. A lot of stores have policies on employees not wearing perfumes or strong scented lotions. Maybe the person working the cosmetics section would but only because they are selling scented products to other people.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:15 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Great question. In the exceedingly smelly Back to the Land in Brooklyn, the soaps and cosmetics are definitely part of it. I know this because I bought some for a gift before travelling and it scented my entire luggage with that smell.

It's worth remembering, though, that non-health-food supermarkets are reputed to put quite a lot of effort into artificially making the store smell good (or not smell at all), so some of the "health food store smell" may just be what you get when you don't do that.
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:23 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I smell this smell all the time in health food stores that don't stock bulk dry goods, and don't smell it in Whole Foods*, which has a huge bulk section.

I smell it most in stores that skew higher on the vitamins, toiletries, and condiments/prepared nonperishables than on produce and the like.

I smell it in stores here in New York that don't have that hippy-dippy crunchatarian vibe (a lot of Korean delis in brownstone Brooklyn have expanded into "health food stores"), with immigrant families running the store (no dreads, no patchouli) and no political consciousness about the authenticity of the smell of food or the need to use "natural" cleaning products.

I'm gunning for either nutritional yeast or possibly a combination of all the different types of herbal tea, soaps, oils, "That Vitamin Smell", etc.

*here in New York, anyway. When I was little my uncle worked in one of the first Whole Foods shops, and that particular smell always reminds me of being around three years old hanging out with my uncle and his hippy friends in New Orleans.
posted by Sara C. at 7:42 PM on March 22, 2011

It always smells like carob and yeast to me.
posted by desuetude at 10:13 PM on March 22, 2011

I'm with MaryDellamorte, all the way.
Herbal teas should be mentioned, too, and perhaps honey and real bread.
(Honestly "hippies"? "patchouli"? I guess the OP would have been able to single out at least the latter of the two.)
posted by Namlit at 3:33 AM on March 23, 2011

Response by poster: I'm indeed familiar with the smells of hippy (at least the veeeery laid-back ones) and patchouli, both individually and together, and the smell I'm thinking of is neither. And I'd like to think it is possibly partly due to the soaps and lotions and things, but I recall this same smell going back to my very early childhood in the late 70's-early 80's when that stuff was not really standard health food store merchandise like it is now.
posted by holterbarbour at 6:04 AM on March 23, 2011

Smells like vitamins to me.
posted by walla at 10:34 AM on March 23, 2011

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