The Mystery Culprit Affecting Airline Food Is…

Posted in In the Air, Media

It seems like every two months a study comes out to tell us why food tastes worse on airplanes and the media goes nuts covering the story as if the secrets of humanity are finally being uncovered. Usually, the studies show that air pressure, moisture, and decreased sensory sensitivity are the factors that most influence our tastebuds in the air. A new study out of Cornell University says otherwise. The study, “A Crossmodal Role for Audition in Taste Perception,” (what a sexy name!) was published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance back in March and claims that plane noise actually has a huge effect on how we perceive taste.

Instead of making you read the study, let me highlight the two biggest takeaways:

1. The taste of sweet foods are dulled in the air as a result of sound.

2. Savory umami-rich foods (tomatoes, cheese, meats, soy sauce) taste better when there’s a lot of external noise.

The savory perception increase is fascinating, especially because it explains why so many people like tomato juice/bloody mary mix in the sky. The LA Times actually made this connection the basis of their whole story on the study.

The next time you’re looking over an in-flight menu, use these new developments to guide your choices. Opt for umami-rich foods (check out some examples on the right side of the page here) instead of their sweeter counterparts. Salty, sour, and bitter remain unaffected by the 85-decibels of plane noise, but they’re still influenced by the dryness of the cabin, so your best bet is to select an option that has plenty of sauce to compensate for the lack of moisture in most food served on airplanes.

I’m curious if this study can be applied to ground restaurants as well. Do desserts taste worse in loud restaurants? Are raucous Italian restaurants even more popular because the crowd noise is amping up the flavor of the marinara sauce? I’ve always know our senses were highly connected, but I never considered that sound and taste could be so interlinked.

 

Comments

  1. Totally agree about how every few months they come out with something on why food tastes worse on planes. And even if the factors identified (humidity, air pressure, etc) are true, the biggest cause is still ingredients and preparation. High-quality ingredients, well prepared, will taste good in the air or on the ground. And I’m afraid the conclusions airline catering companies draw from these analyses are wrong – the tendency is to make food even saltier or to drown them in sauces, to make up for the supposedly decreased sensitivity to flavor. I find that tends to leave me feeling worse at the end of the meal than a light meal of fresh ingredients. And the same thing applies to wine – enough with the jammy wines with nothing but obvious flavors. My taste buds appreciate subtler wines with structure and minerality, even in the air, and surely I’m not the only one..

  2. If that’s the case, It’s scary to think what some airplane food I’ve had in the sky would taste like on the ground..

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