Airline food generally tastes poor, according to most air travelers, and there could be reason for it, a new study reveals — the noise from the airplane and recirculated air. Surprisingly, tomato juice — like that found in bloody Marys, seems to improve the taste of in-flight meals.

Noisy conditions can result in taste buds being altered, a new study found. While umami — the savory flavor of broths and meats — is enhanced, sweet flavors are reduced. Researchers found that when noise levels reach about 85 decibels, people can start craving tomato juice and other savory flavors.

This effect is caused by changes in the signals passing between the tongue and brain, along a nerve that passes through the middle ear, making contact with the eardrum.  

"Nerves are very sensitive, so this led me to wonder whether the signal was in some way affected when under conditions of loud noise. A pretty interesting example of this is an airplane cabin, interesting as people always complain about the quality of the food on airlines," Robin Dando from the Department of Food Science at Cornell University said.

Volunteers in the new study were asked to wear headphones for 45 minutes as typical aircraft sounds were played. They were then subjected to tests designed to measure sensitivity to tastes. Researchers found that while sweet tastes were depressed and savory flavors enhanced, senses of saltiness, bitterness and others remained largely unchanged.  

Air constantly recirculating through the cabin can also play a role in changing how fliers perceive their foods, reducing flavor. This effect is driven by reduced air quality as well as low pressure.

Airlines have noticed the link between flying and tomato juice before this recent study. Lufthansa in Germany found passengers were consuming as much tomato juice as beer aboard flights. They released a study in the fall of 2014 showing low air pressure inside cabins brought about an enhanced taste for the vegetable juice.

If flavors of umami and sweetness are altered by in-flight conditions, then food taste-tested on the ground would taste differently to passengers in the air. This new study could allow airlines to craft new menus that will account for the alteration of taste perceptions. Meals that are too sweet or not savory enough on terra firma could taste perfect at cruising altitude. Until then, a bloody Mary may just be the best thing to help get a passenger through an in-flight meal.

Examination of how conditions aboard aircraft affect the sense of taste was detailed in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

Photo: Pelle Sten | Flickr

ⓒ 2021 All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.