Supermarket food smells and tastes fragranced

Since about 2012, my wife and I have been noticing a strong fragrance from certain foods purchased in the supermarket. The scent is a bit floral, a bit like dryer sheets, and a bit like soap. It doesn’t seem natural and is perhaps a chemical. I have no idea as to the origin of the smell. I’ve searched the web and haven’t found an answer as to the origin of the aroma. My wife and I have started calling it “essence,” for lack of a better term. I’m not against fragrance, but I’d certainly like my food to taste as it should.

What we’d observed about the “essence”:

  • There is a strong correlation with products that have certain plastic wraps or plastic wrappers. I’m not sure which plastic wraps but we don’t have the issue at home with name brand plastic wraps.
  • Breads and pastries seem highly susceptible to absorbing the taste of this “essence.”
    It’s really hard to remove the essence.
  • Chicken and beef that has been exposed to the “essence” still tastes of it after washing. Grilling and roasting doesn’t kill the “essence.”
  • Certain stores have more “essence.” Locally, our Randall’s has the most products with this flavor. HEB products have a moderate amount of “essence.” Whole Foods seems to have the least percentage of affected products.
  • Paper products seem to be able to be “infected.” Lots of labels on wine bottles and labels on beer bottles smell quite strong. In fact, I’m afraid to cellar new wine in the same space as prized bottles.
  • We sometimes taste it in restaurant food. Sushi rolls often have “essence.” Perhaps it’s because they are rolled in “essence” plastic wrap before cutting.
  • “Essence” flour has the flavor remain after baking. I’ve had to toss numerous things I’ve baked because of the strong flavor.

Theories of the origin of “essence”:

  • A certain type of plastic seems like it might be a source of the smell.
  • Certain ink used to print on products might also be another source.
  • Maybe my wife and I are supper smellers. Perhaps we’re the olfactory X-Men, but that seems unlikely.

Things I’ve ruled out:

  • I don’t believe it’s any pesticide in the pyrethroid family. These are the most commonly used in pest control. Perhaps it’s a fumigant, but I’ve been unfortunate enough not to have sampled those smells.
  • It doesn’t seem to be the product’s proximity to detergents, soaps, etc. The smell is similar but different than these products.

As a scientifically minded person, this has driven be crazy. Smell is a difficult thing for a laymen to measure. Chemical analysis seems difficult and potentially expensive. That said, I certainly did not enjoy my “essence” steak last night.

Anybody have any theories or answers? Please do chime in.

Leave a Comment

  • David Harness Sep 15, 2019, 11:54 pm

    I just noticed tonight that a 3 lb bag of HoneyCrisp Apples I bought at the local Neighborhood Wal-Mart smells of air freshener. I washed 1 of the apples off, then peeled it and ate some, but I threw the rest of the Apple away, because I was afraid of getting sick due to the un-natural substance that was on the bag.

  • Elaine Taylor Sep 6, 2019, 9:56 pm

    Oh thank you! Some people think I am crazy I just have such acute olfactory function!! I do pick up on a lot of subtle odours but this perfume on my groceries has indeed been driving me crazy. I recently emailed a local market garden (certified organic) that sells its produce at a grocery store and asked if anyone else had complained. Of course not. Oh that’s just the smell from the cooler, she wrote. My response was ok but WHAT is it? You sell premium-priced ORGANIC food and you think this is acceptable? Is IT organic? It is on the bags but most food picks it up too. My frozen GF bread from the GF freezer has smelled of it, and its presence is random and inconsistent. The grocery bags SOMETIMES smell of it, but not always. My daughter returned a bag of icing sugar, the contents of which smelled as bad as the bag. I could go on & on. When we walked into our local A&W restaurant a couple of years ago I smelled it right away. They were pretty empty & cleaning tables & counters. I saw the spray bottle they were using and looked it up online, but sadly I can’t find the link now. if I do find it I’ll post again. Also, at the grocery store I mentioned earlier, when the cashiers are bored I see them cleaning around their work stations, here a squirt there a squirt, everywhere…. So I think much of the time it’s in cleaning products. It also smells so much like febreze, which I hate, & not just the smell but the thought that febreze & its ilk actually coat the surface of fibers & locks in other smells and like bacteria too. On the contamination by laundry detergents, an aisle I try to avoid, I think the fabric sheets use the same scent, maybe even exactly the same, and Tide too. I NEVER use them, and use unscented biodegradable laundry soap and add my own essential oils sometimes. When my husband comes home from traveling, right away I know when his host has done laundry for him. It take several washings to tone it down. And the smell stays in the suitcase. I, too, love a nice perfume (Shalimar, anyone?) but a cheap perfume always smells like it’s trying to cover something up. Like old cigarette smoke in a hotel room. Or air ‘fresheners’ in a car. Go for a walk & dryers are spewing that smell into my fresh air! Get this. Our friends who own a NICE condo and use no scented products explained that the reason my load smelled like I HAD used something was that all the laundry rooms above and below feed into the same vent so it gets in their dryer too! I doubt all this stuff is any more healthful than second-hand smoke. It just gags me an amazes me that for as much ‘concern’ as there is over people wearing perfume to work, it’s perfectly fine to go to work smelling like a bounce sheet. And yes I’ve noticed that in hotels that it comes thru the heat or air vents. Oh, and we recently returned a new very stinky Lazy-boy recliner because of a horrid smell attached to it. That was after someone gave us a really nice recliner when they were moving, but it was so drenched in febreze we had to take it to the dump! Thanks to all of you for affirming my sanity. Now what are we going to do about this??

  • Lisa Aug 8, 2019, 10:31 am

    At lunch yesterday, I bit into my sandwich and it tasted like dish washing liquid, which the taste remained in my mouth for hours. For the life of me, I could not come up with a reason as to why everything tasted like soap. I was almost to the point that something was wrong with me, health wise. So this morning when I woke up and went into the kitchen, grabbed a paper towel to wipe my nose, I smelled what I had tasted all day. Turns out it was a Glad Plug In Air Freshener – GAIN scented (smells like washing powder), the paper towels are about 4 feet away from the plug in. So the paper towels soaked up the scent of the air freshener, which transferred to my bread when I placed it on the paper towels to make my sandwich. This was the culprit! Bye bye Air freshener!

  • Analogue-Jedi Aug 5, 2019, 8:54 am

    Glad I found this post!!! I’ve been going crazy! It’s mainly happening to me with cereal boxes. Kellogs, granola all the brands. But the soap essence is actually inside the bag and I taste it always. Not with all of them, but most of them. I recently moved to Nigeria and have a feeling that supermarkets here get their hands on recalled or tainted stocks from the US and Europe and illegally sell them here as regulations are quite loose. I’m just worried I’m ingesting harmful chemicals (not that most processed foods dont contain harmful chemicals). I’ve thrown so many boxes away. I recently read an article about Kellogg’s recalling soapy tasting cereals. It’s not uncommon for them to end up here for sale.

  • Lolo Jul 18, 2019, 7:15 pm

    They have air fresheners that are connected to the air vents/air conditioner and it gets sprayed into the entire store.
    Grocery stores, clothing stores, even hotels.

  • Kate Jul 3, 2019, 2:24 am

    We no longer shop where laundry products are sold. The smell has ruined frozen food. It’s inside of boxes and packaging. Unscented laundry and dish soap even aquire scent . Our food supply is contaminated by overly scented laundry products. Costco bakery items taste like tide or bounce. Supermarkets should have separate areas similar to a garden section to sell these scented items, away away from food. We have had every single item smell and taste scented from normal grocery stores. Toilet paper, paper towels, school supplies, anything paper, rubber balloons and party plates, cups, napkins reek of air freshener and ruined a birthday party. The ice cream cake we ordered smelled and tasted like intense laundry products. I wish something would be done to change this…it’s odd it’s gone on this long without grocery stores refusing to sell these overly scented laundry products and air fresheners. We’ve returned food and store managers don’t seem to care or act like we’re crazy. These strong laundry odors also waft in our open windows and fill up our home if we don’t close the windows quickly. Times have gotten scary and unhealthy when our food and air are contaminated with laundry products and no one cares to change it.

  • Kathy Jun 18, 2019, 9:29 pm

    I notice from the Dollar stores, specifically any cookies, candy, etc from Dollar General. It’s definitely a floral scent. My only theory so far is that they are absorbing the scents when shipped. The boxes of soaps, bounce, scented candles…whatever, is being shipped with foods. That was that made sense to me.
    A friend gave us a couple dessert mixes (cakes and brownies) she got from a food pantry and it tastes funny too. Not perfume, but like stored in a musty basement?

  • Dan May 5, 2019, 9:15 am

    I knew I couldn’t be the only person who has noticed this. Some years back I caught the whiff of this detergent smell in the cardboard crate from apples at the supermarket. I bought organic apples thinking “essence” as you call it wouldn’t be on these. I was wrong. I bit into the organic apple later and that taste was there. I went back to the store the next day and smelled the crate with the organic apples–same smell as the other stuff. I surmised then that this was probably some disinfectant/pesticide chemical put inside the food containers so that the food lasts longer. I assumed it was a really horrible food industry thing. That was in the States. I’m in Rwanda now and have found the same issue with certain things. I stopped eating this tahini because of that smell. Like you I had to toss some cookies I made with almond flour because of that detergent taste, and today, as hungry as I am, I can’t force myself to eat the lentils I cooked because of the same issue. Uhhh! My stomach is actually bothering me now from eating just a little of it. This can’t be safe for consumption; certainly not in the long term.

  • Davey May 4, 2019, 4:12 pm

    Oh yes, and btw: We use Bounce dryer sheets to repel mice from getting inside our vehicles in the wintertime, and chewing on important stuff like wires and hoses! Apparently even mice can’t stand it! 🙂

  • Davey May 4, 2019, 3:58 pm

    Essence of a musky cologne is why I just finished throwing away 5 paper grocery bags, about a dozen plastic produce bags, and re-bagging all the loose nuts, grain, and dried fruit my husband just brought home from Whole Foods. Also washed the bananas, and am about to wash some of the spice jars he purchased there. It seems that the cashier who checked him out, had cologne on her hands. I have washed my own hands several times, after handling the groceries, but still smell it. This never has happened to us at Whole Foods, in the five or so yrs we’ve shopped there. It’s one reason we shop there—attention to details like keeping the produce from smelling like the perfume counter at Dillard’s. But it has happened at other grocery stores, especially several years ago. Back in the bad old days when Big Tobacco was large and in charge, it was hard to even find a storebought apple that didn’t reek of cigarette smoke. Or cigar smoke. Lettuce was equally bad. No wonder Americans didn’t like fresh fruit and veggies—-if it came from the grocery store, it all tasted like eu de ashtray! We are retired now, and my husband has been baking our bread. It’s easy to taste staleness and off-flavors, now that we know what fresh bread is supposed to taste like. We haven’t run into off flavors in grocery store bread lately (mainly because we eat so little of it), but we have encountered bread machine bread from a private individual, that had the slight but un-mistakeable odor of scented dish soap. We figured that the pans used to bake the bread probably had a synthetic non-stick Teflon type coating, which permanently bonded with fragrance chemicals in the dish soap. Heat of baking releases them, and they tainted the bread. We’ve also encountered home-baked cookies with an even stronger cosmetic smell and taste, almost as if someone added some kind of scented toiletry powder to the batter. But we now think it was the same thing—heavily scented soap, bonding with plastic surfaces of baking tray, or perhaps the bowl or utensils used in making the cookies. Plastic packaging and processing probably has no place in food service or the food industry, unless it is totally inert. We use as little plastic as we can get away with, and never use plastic in baking or cooking, or even microwaving. And then there’s fresh chicken…probably 20 or 25 yrs ago, I began to notice a distinct chlorine/disinfectant smell on fresh chicken from the grocery store. Didn’t matter if it was whole or cut up—it was there. I could taste it even after cooking. Tried washing it off before cooking. Didn’t work. So we stopped eating chicken, for years. Then we started again, when a local farmers’ market opened in our town. We bought REALLY expensive chicken directly from the farmer, only for special occasions. Turkey, too. It was heaven. Then Whole Foods came to town, and we got used to having chicken again regularly. It’s been a luxury! We buy it air-chilled, from the butcher. Never any non-chicken fragrances. So I guess we weren’t the only ones who noticed it….but I sure hope the employee with the strong cologne doesn’t get let into the butcher area. Literally everything she touched reeks, and everything we touched after merely handling the bags, jars, etc, now reeks. She’ll ruin lots of expensive meat, and they’ll have to throw it all away! Thanks for sharing this concern!

  • Jill Mar 28, 2019, 6:44 pm

    I found this site a few weeks ago and was so relieved! My husband and I have been plagued by “essence” on our produce and cheese for a year or so and I started feeling like we were the only ones who could smell and taste it. I’ve asked friends if they’ve noticed it and not gotten much response. I brought it up to our store manager who looked puzzled and said she’d look into it. That was 8 months ago. We’ve had to give Parmigiano Reggiano cheese to our chickens because of the taste absolutely ruining the rest of the food. We’ve wondered if it’s a fumigant in shipping containers clinging to plastic? Or in the plastic itself? Theoretically food items and dry goods like the really stinky laundry stuff should be shipped differently; refrigerated and non refrigerated. Two friends did say they had to get rid of brand new plastic trash bags because the perfume in them was so pervasive it stunk up the room they were in. The first time we ever noticed a horrible smell around edible groceries was many years ago in a small food store in a remote town in Canada and we figured it was the bug spray they had to use through out the store – which I do know is used on the floors and lower shelves in at least the smaller grocery stores here in Alaska. But we hadn’t had it affect our food until a year or two ago. The dryer sheet smell is on many plastic bags of (organic) apples, on plastic clam shells containing produce and definitely on some of the plastic wrap of cheeses. It’s also often on the freezer items. I’ve started immediately getting the produce out of it’s wrapping when I get it home and I sometimes have to wash our cotton grocery bags because they’ve been infected! What is particularly maddening is it’s hard to smell while in the produce aisle – but when we get the groceries home we can really smell it. Thank you so much for writing about this because I haven’t figured out who to ask about it. Especially since everyone else seems to be oblivious to it.

  • Kate Mar 26, 2019, 4:57 pm

    My husband and I have noticed it also. The stink of laundry soap is even on the paper cartons of the frozen dinners, and we noticed it on the outside of yogurt containers as well. And On a box of cream of wheat. I think it’s basically from the stink of the laundry soap and similar products in the store. My husband has a theory that the plastic and paper being used to package things is being treated somehow in recycling to make it smell that way. I don’t think so. I just think it’s that obnoxious laundry soap smell. That stuff could survive a nuclear blast and still keep stinking. I’ve also noticed the same thing that others have commented on in posts about smelling perfume odors on their sandwiches or food from carry out . Either people are going to work with perfume and cologne on, or some kind of scented hand wash is used. And perfumes don’t smell normal or good anymore either, they just smell weird and like nothing in particular other than obnoxious. Sorry to say it but it’s true. The people who’re wearing it don’t notice it because they get nose blind to it and they think they smell wonderful . They don’t.

  • Antje Mar 25, 2019, 11:50 pm

    I think that the thin plastic food packages absorb the artificial fragrances wafting around the grocery store. Breads, pastries, cookie dough, tortillas, and such foods readily absorb the flavor through the flimsy, plastic packaging. Heating the food just heightens the bad taste/smell. Most of the nasty fragrances start in the detergent, cleaning products and fabric softener aisle, but float throughout the entire store. The nasty smell is a combination of all the artificial fragrances and bleach, I believe. Products from grocery stores with fewer fragranced products don’t stink as much.
    I reach to the back of the shelf to get products that have had less exposure to the grocery store air, which helps. Most people can’t smell the artificial fragrances, but they are indeed present.

  • Crystal Cogdill Mar 10, 2019, 6:20 pm

    I smell and taste itbad in Dollar General foods.

  • bronny Mar 8, 2019, 12:57 am

    i have noticed when i have a sandwich and if i wrap it with plastic wrap my sandwich taste like a perfume something like hand wash its quite horrible

  • eGoh Feb 6, 2019, 2:38 pm

    Thank you all for you comments and insight. I can’t believe how frustrating it is that so few people report this issue and that it’s hard to figure out the exact cause. I’m personally leaning towards some sort of fragrance that has been added to certain plastics, but definitely not 100% sure, nor can I figure out why that would be done. I’ve even read food industry articles (and I’m not in that industry) on plastic wraps but can’t turn up any real evidence of that causes the smell/taste. Keep you comments and insights coming. Thanks!

  • Noni Feb 6, 2019, 1:50 pm

    I was trying to find out why and no one seems to know. But it’s comforting to know I’m not alone.
    I only eat plant based foods, so thats all the data I can provide.
    Breads. Breads have started to taste of perfume or some other odd flavor that doesn’t belong. I bought two different brands of white sour dough from a high end grocery store and they both had that weird taste.
    I bought trader Joe’s whole wheat raisin cinnamon rolls (which are more like a bagel than a cinnamon roll, no frosting) and they taste like perfume. Those rolls are very thick and if I only eat the middle part I can’t taste it. But, the outer edges taste strongly.
    Possible causes:
    Someone is spraying something over the foods.

    I’m pretty sure my local natural holistic style grocery store does smudging with burnt sage because one day I came in as they opened and that’s what I smelled, plus they sell it. I doubt trader Joe’s does smudging though….

  • margaret Feb 5, 2019, 5:36 pm

    I have noticed that the sickening smell of dryer sheets seems to penetrate other products in the grocery store. I think those essences are made of petroleum products and they travel around the store and leach into anything that is wrapped in plastic. It has an affinity for other petroleum material. In particular I always can smell that fragrance on the meat and chicken that is wrapped in plastic wrap. Today I bought a gallon of Ice Mountain water and when I took a taste i had to spit it out—-tasted just like dryer sheets.

  • Olga Nov 10, 2018, 1:26 pm

    I have eaten flat bread that had a perfume taste and have not come to a conclusion as to why. If anyone know why flour would produce such a taste please let me know.

    Thank you

  • Julie Oct 30, 2018, 7:40 pm

    I just tasted the fragrance in a new box of cereal bought from dollar general. I am suspecting it is from smaller stores with dryer sheets or fragranced trash bags where the air doesn’t get turned over. My theory is the chemicals linger in the air and penetrate packaging for items with long shelf life. Maybe smell the box first. Also, we don’t use dryer sheets, fabric softener, and dye free detergent. Our noses pick up that scent much faster than those that do. I can smell it on people very strongly. I hope it is not the packaging being used – yuck! Trying to reduce chemicals – not add them in my body.

  • Robert Sawyer Oct 1, 2018, 12:08 pm

    Final update: Things kept being tasted after the backpack wash. Threw my lunch in a plastic bag in the trunk within my backpack. Tasted great, no essance.

    I have come to my final conclusion a box of inscense I keep in my car under my seat tainted my food in my passenger seat through plastic bags in ziplock bags within a backpack.

    Throwing them away.

  • Robert Sawyer Sep 26, 2018, 10:56 am

    Update- plastic bags may not be culprit. Either they tainted the backpack I use( I washed it today) or a box of incense just remembered I keep in my car may be tainting the food(the taint smells similar) on my 20 min ride to work

  • eGoh Sep 18, 2018, 8:29 pm

    Yeah, certain plastics seems to have the scent quite strong. I think some plastic bags used for breads and such also have the issue. I’ve tried to research it a bit, but don’t know why polyethylene bags would have a scent like that. Thanks for your info and detective work!

  • Robert Sawyer Sep 18, 2018, 8:25 pm

    She was disgusted. Well my mystery taste is solved. Plastic grocery bags.

  • Robert Sawyer Sep 18, 2018, 1:26 pm

    I started living on my own last month. Making my own food. Bringing it to work in plastic bags. My food has no detectable essance.

    But when I bring it to work, even in Tupperware inside the plastic grocery bag, it permeates any bread I bring, taints my rice, and lighty seasons meat.

    I can’t find anyone talking about it online, but my food work food, especially baked goods tastes like drier sheets.

    I think it’s my plastic grocery bags I use for lunch.

    I left some Walgreens cookies in a non airtight plastic tin, in a plastic grocery bag for a week. That was the first time I tasted it. It was so gross and concentrated, It stuck in my teeth and I tasted it for half an hour.

    I am making my wife confirm the taste this evening. Will report back.

  • Amber Sep 4, 2018, 6:55 pm

    I am the only one in my family that tastes this in dry foods products that we purchase from dollar general. To me, it’s such an overwhelming taste that I have thrown out entire boxes of crackers, cereal, wafers etc. My family thinks I’m crazy, my husband thinks I am lying. Also, the bags from this store harbor the ‘essence’ I have to remove them from the house, as even touching them transfers the smell to my hands. I stumbled on this article right after tossing out rice crispies, and making everyone upset. It’s strange to me that no one else tastes this, or smells this, where as it is overwhelming to me. It’s exactly what I’d imagine to be ‘the taste’ of bounce dryer sheets, or perfume floral soap.