There’s a mystery going on. Passengers are ordering tomato juice left and right on airplanes, and actually loving it more than on the ground.
It turns out that science – as always – can explain this phenomenon. According to a study published in BioMed Central, loud noises like the droning of an airplane cabin can affect your taste buds.
While sweet and salty flavors are dulled during an airplane ride, the so-called fifth flavor, umami, is enhanced. Umami flavor, translated from Japanese to mean “pleasant savory taste”, is found in amino acids like glutamate, inosinate and guanylate, according to the Umami Information Center.
Foods like tomatoes, spinach, tuna, soy sauce and mushrooms are just a few of the umami champions and are commonly found in Asian cuisine. Dried shitake mushrooms and dried tomatoes are known to be the richest in glutamate.
So how do loud sounds affect your taste? Well it’s not known exactly how it does, but through experiments conducted by A.T. Woods in 2011, they have found that sweet and salty flavors were perceived to be dulled when subjects ate foods while listening to loud white noise over headphones; akin to the noise on airplanes.
Food scientists at Cornell University conducted a similar experiment where they found that in addition to dulling sweet and salty flavors, loud noises will heighten umami flavors.
“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,” Robin Dando, assistant professor of food science at Cornell, told the Cornell Chronicle. “The multisensory properties of the environment where we consume our food can alter our perception of the foods we eat.”
Yet, it’s not just sound that makes that Bloody Mary mix so delicious and that soft drink sub-par, the extra-dry and low-pressurized air in the cabin can also wreak havoc to your sense of taste, according to a 2010 study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics.
However, the cabin air doesn’t affect our sense of taste directly, but rather indirectly through our olfactory senses. Eighty percent of what you taste is actually what you smell, and since the dry cabin air dries up your nose, you lose the ability to properly indulge in that bag of chocolate-covered pretzels.
What’s the best way to get the best out of food on a plane? Eat early into the flight before the air is affected, and eat foods rich in umami.
The next time you’re flying with Envoy – maybe first class on the Embraer 175 – ask your friendly flight attendant for the tomato juice, and science will do the rest.