Bland-tasting food? It could be the background noise

Oct 15, 2010 by Lin Edwards report
Photo credit: mr kathika, Flickr

(PhysOrg.com) -- Air travelers have long complained of the blandness of airline food, but new research suggests the aircraft noise may be the problem rather than the chefs or the menu.

The study, published in the journal Quality and Preference, reported that the presence of high levels of diminished the sensitivity of the palate in volunteers, making food taste bland and flavorless, while pleasant sounds could increase the sensitivity and enjoyment of the food.

Researcher Andy Woods and colleagues from the University of Manchester in the UK and Unilever blindfolded 48 volunteers and gave them a range of foods while exposing them to different levels of white via headphones. Foods used in the trials included cheese crackers and flapjacks, and the results showed that the louder the white noise, the less the subjects were able to sense and enjoy the saltiness or sweetness of the foods, and the less they tended to like them. One thing that did increase in the presence of loud noise was the sense of the crunchiness of the foods tested. In another experiment they found a relationship between liking of music being played while they ate, and liking of the food.

Woods said there is a general opinion that airline foods "aren't fantastic," but since they do their best, he wondered if there were other factors at play. Airline catering companies tend to season their meals strongly to counteract the perceived blandness, and NASA does the same to its foods for astronauts because they also have a reduced perception of flavor. It is also a common phenomenon for people to eat more if they eat while watching TV.

To Woods' knowledge no one had ever researched the effect of background nois on the enjoyment of food, but one thing that is common to all airlines is the ambient noise of the aircraft, so he and his colleagues decided to test the hypothesis that the noise may have an effect.

The research clearly showed that the presence of loud noise dulled the perception of taste, but enjoyable music could enhance the eating experience. Woods said the findings suggested for example, that salad bar serving crunchy salads might benefit from louder music, but a restaurant serving salty food should turn the music down.

The findings could help restaurateurs select the best music and ambient sounds to maximize their customers’ enjoyment of their meals. Unilever intends to continue the research to try to find the explanation for the effects found. One possibility is that the noise might distort the brain’s ability to interpret the sense of taste, or it might simply distract the diner from the flavors of the meal.

Explore further: Best of Last Week – quantum pigeonholing, a hoverbike drone project and the sun goes quiet

More information: Effect of background noise on food perception, A.T. Woods et al., Food Quality and Preference, doi:10.1016/j.foodqual.2010.07.003

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User comments : 5

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Shootist
3 / 5 (2) Oct 15, 2010
Sprinkle a fair helping of cayenne pepper on that bland airline food; I don't care how loud the engines are.
Royale
4.5 / 5 (2) Oct 15, 2010
yea, really. I thought it was altitude that made catering companies add more seasoning? And the space shuttle? I can't imagine being in orbit being a loud place. They're floating around with a few experiments. Have you ever seen a video with astronauts? They're pretty silent and you can hear the crew well. Bad argument I think, I think that thinner air has much more to do with perceived blandness and if someone strapped headphones with white noise on me, I wouldn't enjoy the food as much either. Don't use ground tests to jump to conclusions about things over 30,000 feet... bah this article gives me a headache...
emattson
not rated yet Oct 15, 2010
I think the researches are asking an interesting question. I doesn't sound like they have been doing this research for too long. I'll be interested to hear what they find next.

Also, with regard to Royale's comment: do you think the thin air really might have something to do with the taste of the food? Airplanes are pressurized, giving the feeling that we are at atmospheric pressure. Now that I think about it more, it is an interesting research project. I don't know, however, if the noise has anything to do with the taste. I don't mind airplane food, but maybe that's because by the time I eat it, I am starving.
CarolinaScotsman
3 / 5 (2) Oct 15, 2010
Where do you find an airline that still serves food?
plasticpower
not rated yet Oct 16, 2010
Just add a healthy dose of MSG. Problem solved!