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Airplane food tastes bad because your brain can't handle the noise

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For as long as there have been hack comedians, humanity has pondered the question: "What's the deal with airline food?" Well, science has figured it out: airplanes are just too damn loud for food to taste good.

Generally speaking, it's not just that airplane food tastes bad - most passengers, when asked, report that the food is bland and a bit flavorless. Airlines have been very heavily seasoning and salting their foods for years in an attempt to counteract that, but they don't have much success to show for it. As it turns out, it might have been easier to just figure out a way to make the engines run silently.


That rather strange conclusion comes from a new study at the University of Manchester. Researcher Andy Woods noticed airplanes weren't the only place where food had to be heavily seasoned to get any flavor, and he wondered about a possible connection:

"There's a general opinion that aeroplane foods aren't fantastic. I'm sure airlines do their best - and given that, we wondered if there are other reasons why the food would not be so good. One thought was perhaps the background noise has some impact. NASA gives their space explorers very strong-tasting foods, because for some reason thay can't taste food that strongly - again, perhaps it's the background noise. There was no previous research on this, so we went about seeing if the hunch was correct."


Woods's study was pretty small - only 48 people were tested, so another round of experiments is definitely needed to be sure about this - but the results were striking. The test subjects were blindfolded and given headphones that were either completely silent or fairly noisy. They were then fed sweet foods like cookies and salty foods like potato chips, and asked to rate how intense the flavors were and how much they liked those flavors.

In the noisier environment, the test subjects found food less flavorful - the saltiness and sweetness were way down - but actually found the food quite a bit crunchier than those eating in silence. Woods believes this is because the background noise distracts diners, which makes people's brains unable to properly concentrate on the flavor of the food. Since crunchiness has a noise component to it as well, that might explain why people notice it more in noisier settings.

There's also the possibility that the food tastes better the more people like the noise they're hearing, although Woods says there will need to be additional tests to track down that effect. So if you want to enjoy your airplane food, learn to love the sound of jet engines...or invest in some good quality headphones.

[BBC News; also check out Gawker's take on the story]