Airlines attempt all manner of things to try to make their food more palatable. Some provide passengers with healthy options, while others have partnered with celebrity chefs in an effort to dress up their onboard menus, at least in business and first class.
But no matter how much work they put into it — even if it’s prepared by a private onboard chef and served by a personal butler on fine china — the truth is, most airplane food still tastes… well, weird
There are plenty of obvious reasons why that might be. Airplane cabin humidity levels are usually around 10 to 15 percent, well below what they are on the ground.
Cabin pressure is about the same as it would be if you were walking around at an altitude of 8,000 feet. Those conditions can dry out both the mouth and sinuses and cause the sinuses to swell — all of which in dampens your sensations of taste and smell. The dryness might leave you craving salty foods. Decreased cabin pressure, meanwhile, lowers your oxygen levels, which in turn can reduce the intensity of your sensory perceptions.
But apart from those obvious environmental factors, several recent studies have found another surprising reason why foods might taste different to you on airplanes: the noise level. That’s right, the volume of the airplane environment might have an impact on your taste.
A 2015 Cornell study by scientists Robin Dando and Kimberly Yan tested how noise levels impact our taste buds. The pair had their test subjects taste different liquid solutions representing the five major tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami, first in silence, and then wearing headphones playing white noise at a sound level of 80 decibels — just under what you’d find on an average airplane in flight.
“Our study confirmed that in an environment of loud noise, our sense of taste is compromised,” said Dando. More specifically, they found loud noise levels dampened perceptions of sweet foods and enhanced awareness of umami (savory) flavors. That chocolate sundae at 30,000 feet won’t taste nearly as good as it does on the ground, while a Bloody Mary will taste even better up at altitude.
That’s not just a random example, either. German airline Lufthansa was puzzled that its fliers were drinking more tomato juice than beer (sacrilege in Germany!) and commissioned its own study to find out why fliers were gravitating toward a beverage few people drink on the ground. They discovered that their preference for salty and savory foods was sky high, while cravings for sweet treats plummeted.
Why should that be so? Dando and Yan conjectured that it is because the nerve that carries taste signals from the tongue to the brain, the chorda tympani if you want to get all scientific, passes right through the middle ear, where noise frequencies are bound to impact it. What was interesting was that the noise impacted different taste sensations differently, which will bear further research.
Now, it can’t all be about the noise. First, the Cornell study was conducted on the ground, so its findings cannot be directly applied to an in-flight environment. Also remember, the hottest new restaurant in town might have a noise level well above 100 decibels as diners brag to one another about how they scored a table and how fabulous the food is. Rather, noise is just one environmental factor that affects how we experience food, and different types of noise cause us to experience a meal differently (i.e. airplane noise does not equate to restaurant noise in terms of enjoyment).
All our other senses impact our experience of food as well. For instance, if you ate in the dark, chances are the food would taste different to you than if you were eating the same thing in broad daylight. One study found that the type and weight of cutlery influenced how much people enjoyed a meal, while another still found it was the sound of the food itself, such as how crunchy a chip is when you chew it, that was significant to our enjoyment.
Let’s not forget about those dry, high-altitude cabin conditions or the stress of travel, which also likely play roles not only in how you experience the food on a plane, but everything else from the entertainment you watch to how well you sleep. After all, how much could you possibly enjoy a meal served on plastic plates squeezed onto an ugly tray while sandwiched in between two strangers in a tight airline seat?
Plus, plane food tends not to include many fresh items. Most has been frozen or refrigerated, reheated in a convection oven that dries it out, then plated for efficiency rather than aesthetics, all of which detract from its tastiness.
Still the Cornell study and others like it hold interesting (and hopefully more delicious) implications for how we will eat on planes in the future. In the meantime, conduct your own onboard study: Spend a flight with noise-canceling headphones on and see if the food up in the air tastes different or better to you than an in-flight meal without your headphones.
If you’re interested in reading further on the topic, there is also a new book out called Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating by Charles Spence, an Oxford experimental psychology professor. In it, Spence explores the ways in which multisensory perception (i.e. sound, vision, touch) affect our perceptions of taste. In addition to addressing factors like ambient sound and music, restaurant décor, and even plate shapes and cutlery, he discusses the airplane food problem as he investigates how the ways we eat and experience food will continue to evolve.
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