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.