Why food really tastes different when you’re flying

If you’re planning to fly anytime soon, you might find yourself craving some tomato juice.

In fact, airline passengers ask for several savory foods they might not ordinarily want — and researchers have found a few different reasons that might explain why airline food tastes different at altitude.

tomato juice on an airplane flight

When flying, taste buds prefer savory tomato

While examining how airplane noise affects the palate, Cornell University food scientists found sweetness suppressed and a tasty, tender tomato surprise: umami.

A Japanese term, umami describes the sweet, savory taste of amino acids such as glutamate in foods like tomato juice, and according to the new study, in noisy situations — like the 85 decibels aboard a jetliner — umami-rich foods become your taste bud’s best buds.

>> The fifth taste, umami, could benefit your health

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,” said Robin Dando, assistant professor of food science. “The multisensory properties of the environment where we consume our food can alter our perception of the foods we eat.”

tomato juice and tomatoesThe study may guide reconfiguration of airline food menus to make airline food taste better. Auditory conditions in air travel actually may enhance umami, the researchers found. In contrast, exposure to the loud noise condition dulled sweet taste ratings.

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Cabin pressure’s apparent effect on tomato juice orders

Airlines acknowledge the phenomenon. For example, German airline Lufthansa had noticed that passengers were consuming as much tomato juice as beer — about 1.7 million liters (more than 7 million cups) each year. The airline commissioned a private study showing that cabin pressure enhanced tomato juice taste.

Taste perception depends not only on the integration of several sensory inputs associated with the food or drink itself, but also on the sensory attributes of the environment in which the food is consumed, the scientists say.

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“The multisensory nature of what we consider ‘flavor’ is undoubtedly underpinned by complex central and peripheral interactions,” said Dando. “Our results characterize a novel sensory interaction, with intriguing implications for the effect of the environment in which we consume food.”

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