In-flight dining has a bad reputation, but — according to a pioneering study from the University of Manchester and Unilever — poor catering isn't the only reason tray-table meals tend to taste bad. "I'm sure airlines do their best," says researcher Andy Woods, but another factor plays a part in how we perceive taste and texture in the air: Namely, background noise. (Watch Shep Smith protest against airline food.) Here's a concise summary:
How was the study conducted?
Forty-eight people participated in the study. Blindfolded and equipped with headphones, subjects listened to either noise or silence while eating salty foods such as potato chips, and sweet foods such as cookies, then ranked the intensity of the various flavors.
What did the study find?
When subjected to noise, participants found both salty and sweet foods relatively bland. "Loud background noise dampens food tastes," Woods concludes. "The ability to detect saltiness or sweetness is reduced."
It comes down to "where your attention lies," says Woods. Environmental noise draws your attention away from the experience of eating. This also explains, he notes, why astronauts have reported trouble tasting foods in space, leading NASA to serve them heavily flavored meals.
Do the findings have applications outside of the in-flight realm?
Perhaps. Strategic moms might find kids more willing to eat Brussels sprouts in the presence of background noise to "cut the bitter taste," Woods suggests, while bar and club owners should consider serving more flavorful foods in a noisy atmosphere.
Are there other reasons airline food tastes bad?
Of course. The dehydration and air-conditioning inside planes also suck out flavor, says Guillaume de Syon, an Albright College history professor who has researched airline food. And then there's the fact, quips Raphael Brion at Eater that "penny-pinching airlines [don't give] a shit."