Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
A new study suggests it’s all in your ears.
Dear CityLab: I know that airplane food is notoriously gross. But why?
Funny you should ask, dear reader—two Cornell researchers released a study on this very topic just a few weeks ago. Turns out, you might have the roaring engine or screaming baby next to you to thank (or blame) for the funky-tasting food.
We’ve long known that our senses are tied to each other. (See: the blind teenager who uses echolocation to ride his bike around his neighborhood.) A number of factors affect our senses when we board a tin can into the sky: changing air pressure, humidity, dryness (we’ll get to those later). But the Cornell team, Robin Dando and Kimberly Yan, decided to zoom in on the sound of being in an airplane, that persistent cabin hum that can reach levels of 85 decibels, about the sound of city traffic heard from inside a car.
To determine whether the noises of an airplane affect taste buds, Dando and Yan set up an experiment with 48 participants of various ages, who were each asked to don high-def headphones that piped in airplane sounds at 80 to 85 decibels. Then the tastings began. Each participant was given a small sample of a liquid solution dominated by a specific taste: salty, bitter, sour, sweet or umami, a Japanese term for the distinctive, sweet and savory, hard-to-describe taste produced by foods with glutamate, like tomatoes and aged cheese.
The results? Dando and Yan found that the loud noise did affect people’s taste buds—but only some of them. The sweet taste was compromised, while the umami taste was enhanced. Salt, bitter, and sour receptors weren’t affected. “The multisensory nature of what we consider ‘flavor’ is undoubtedly underpinned by complex central and peripheral interactions,” Dando explained in a press release. “Our results characterize a novel sensory interaction, with intriguing implications for the effect of the environment in which we consume food.”
So I can tolerate tomato juice on planes because my ears tell me to?
Yes, but it gets more complicated. A 2010 study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics took a closer look at how flying affects taste by building a flight simulator out of an old AirBus and plunking it in a German cow pasture. Once study subjects were seated comfortably inside the simulator, scientists manipulated the air pressure levels to see whether it affected their snacking.
In short: It did. The researchers discovered that the lower air pressure on an airplane makes it harder to detect odorants, airborne molecules that stimulate the nose’s sensory cells and play an important role in the tasting process. Essentially: It’s harder to smell on an airplane, so it’s also harder to taste. Furthermore, the researchers found that foods had to be much saltier, sweeter, but only a bit umami-er to be detected at low pressures. In other words, the tomatoes taste more familiar in the strange airplane environment than other foods—maybe that’s why people like them at cruising altitude.
Another possibility: The decreased humidity of the airplane. Without added air moisture, your nose dries out quickly (as does the food that’s served in that environment). That dryness also affects your sense of smell.
OK. Does all of this impact what kind of food airlines serve?
Yes. Airline companies know that they have to make food taste better in the sky. Luckily for them (but maybe unluckily for us?) there’s a short-cut around the taste-impairing airplane environment. The Atlantic reports:
The solution is in the sauce.
French chef Raymond Oliver is credited with devising this strategy for modern airline food. In 1973, French airline Union de Transports Aériens asked Oliver to design its menu, and he suggested three staple items: beef bourguignon, coq au vin, and veal in a cream sauce. All of these dishes are covered in sauce, which protects the meat from sawdusting out when reheated and served in the bone-dry environment of an airplane cabin.
Airline chefs have been messing with airline food to make palatable in the sky for decades. But whether they’ve succeeded is up for debate.