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Scientists Say High Noise Levels Are Why Airplane Food Sucks

A new study from Cornell University has found that the loud noise conditions of an airplane cabin can enhance salty and bitter flavours, but lessen the impact of sweet ones.
Phoebe Hurst
London, GB
May 14, 2015, 10:00pm

Unless you're one of those people with the ability to sleep open-mouthed, limbs akimbo through all levels of public transport-induced discomfort (and invariably, the one person we mortal sleepers get stuck sitting next to), long-haul flights aren't that much fun.

Even if you don't end up next to said shoulder-drooler, there's the inadequate legroom, the questionable movie selection (has Sandra Bullock really made this many bad rom-coms?), and the underlying worry that your entire body is slowly succumbing to deep vein thrombosis.

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And that's before the trolley full of vacuum-packed scrambled eggs and watery "Thai curry" has even made its cumbersome way to your seat.

READ MORE: I'm Your Flight Attendant and I Think You're All a Bunch of Drunks

Airplane travel and its accompanying food options can be pretty dismal. We all know that. Reduced air pressure and confined spaces aren't exactly conducive to gastronomic ecstasy, but research released this week gives further insight into exactly why certain foods taste so bad when consumed in-flight.

Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, the Cornell University study saw 48 participants sample different concentrations of five solutions in a loud environment designed to mimic the 85 decibels aboard a jetliner. They also sampled the solutions in silent conditions.

The participants then rated the intensity of what they'd tasted on the Labeled Magnitude Scale, a method used in sensory science to map perceived sensation.

The results showed that "salty, sour or bitter tastes," were not affected by exposure to loud, airplane-like noises, but that the impact of sweet flavours was lessened. In fact, while umami tastes may even be enhanced by noisy environments, the sweeter solutions were rated "progressively lower."

"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," assistant professor of food science and study co-author, Robin Dando told the Cornell Chronicle. "The multisensory properties of the environment where we consume our food can alter our perception of the foods we eat."

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It's not the first time noise and flavour perception have been explored in relation to airline food. Last year, British Airways worked with the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University to release a playlist designed to enhance passengers' flight-dulled tastebuds.

Nik Loukas, founder of airline food guide InFlightFeed and airline catering consultant, however, is skeptical of the impact noise can have on what we taste.

"[Food] always tastes better in business and first class. Maybe it's the noise-cancelling headsets and the extra space?" he says. "I can't say that I have ever noticed."

READ MORE: Robots and Conveyer Belts Are the Future of In-Flight Meals

According to the study, the enhancement of umami tastes in airplane conditions may be caused by stimulation of the chorda tympani nerve in the middle ear, linked to tastebuds in the front of the tongue. The findings correspond with research commissioned by German airline Lufthansa, which found that cabin pressure increased passengers' consumption of tomato juice.

Loukas agrees that it's the wilting pasta bake in your tray—not the pot of overly sweetened strawberry yoghurt—that tastes better when onboard.

"It's a well-known fact that Asian dishes and Indian curries work extremely well at 35,000 feet due to the intense flavors of these dishes," he says. "Quality ingredients always make for a great start when creating an airline meal, in my honest opinion. You can't dress up bad quality food, even on the ground."

Dando hopes the study will help airline caterers match dishes to the conditions of the plane, noting that the ability to enhance salty and bitter tastes may actually be a good thing.

So will we all be eating umami-packed trays of polenta and cream cheese in the sky soon? Maybe not. But at least now we know why that giant, duty free bag of M&Ms doesn't taste quite so good when scarfed down in the window seat somewhere above Belgium.