All of us have experience of bad taste of airline food. Have you ever thought why it tastes like that? Don’t blame airlines for that, it is definitely not their fault! There is a scientific explanation for this phenomenon. A study at Cornell University in 2015 measured how people perceive taste in noisy environments. They found that when the subjects were exposed to noise level of 85 decibels – that equals the level of noise of the engines inside an aircraft – sweet flavours were dampened and savoury ones heightened. In addition, the dry recycled air inside the aircraft cabin further deadens your taste buds.
During the study, 48 people were handed a variety of solutions that were spiked with five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (a Japanese word for the savoury flavour found in foods like bacon, tomatoes, cheese, and soy sauce). First, the testers sipped in silence, then again, with headsets on playing noise at decibel level of about 85, designed to mimic the hum of jet engines onboard a plane. Researchers found that a high frequency noise of an airplane cabin can significantly alter our perception of taste. That can make sweet foods taste less sweet, and give savoury flavours a stronger kick.
“Our study confirmed that in an environment of loud noise, our sense of taste is compromised. Interestingly, this was specific to sweet and umami tastes, with sweet taste inhibited and umami taste significantly enhanced,” Robin Dando, assistant professor of food science at Cornell, told the Cornell Chronicle. “The multisensory properties of the environment where we consume our food can alter our perception of the foods we eat.”
A tip for you if you want to enjoy your meal on a plane: eat early into the flight before the air is affected, and eat foods rich in umami. Ask your friendly flight attendant for tomato juice, and science will do the rest.