Cornell University researchers have discovered an unusual correlation between ambient aircraft noise and taste buds.
Airplane food may leave a lot to be desired, but according to scientists from Cornell University, this is more than just a matter of taste. Pressurized, dry, crowded and noisy, the cabin environment is an assault on the senses, and one in-flight element in particular appears to have a direct impact on taste — ambient cabin noise.
In a recent experiment, Cornell researchers Robin Dando and Kimberly Yan had volunteers sip a variety of taste solutions. Participants first sipped the solutions — bitter, salty, sour, sweet and savory/umami — in complete silence and rated the taste’s intensity. The same participants then sipped the same solutions while wearing headphones playing the 80-plus decibel noise associated with cabin conditions.
After sampling the five basic tastes in an in-flight atmosphere, volunteers reported no change in bitter, salty or sour intensities. However, the intensity of the sweet solution decreased in this environment while umami’s intensity increased. While both umami and sweet receptors share a common gene and stimulate similar patterns of brain activity, it’s not exactly understood why noise affects these two tastes so differently.
The Cornell study supports the results found by researchers at Lufthansa back in 2010 and suggests that meals with more umami elements, such as cheese, fish, soy sauce, mushrooms or tomatoes, can stand up to harsh cabin conditions.
Dando and Yan have suggested there is a physiological reason as to why cabin noise affects passengers’ sense of taste. They believe it’s all to do with an individual’s chorda tympani nerve, which is located in the middle ear and helps relay taste impulses from the tongue to the brain. According to their findings, these impulses may literally be rattled by loud noises, thereby distorting normal taste perceptions and making certain foods more pleasant in cabin conditions.
“The multisensory nature of what we consider ‘flavor’ is undoubtedly underpinned by complex central and peripheral interactions,” said Dando, summarizing the study in the Cornell Chronicle. “Our results characterize a novel sensory interaction, with intriguing implications for the effect of the environment in which we consume food.”