There's virtually nobody who will tell you that airline food is good but don't blame airline's chef: the problem is in you. It's simple: when you are eating surrounded with loud noise you can't sense the flavour.
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The new scientific study reported that the presence of high levels of background noise make food taste bland and flavourless, while pleasant sounds could increase the sensitivity and enjoyment of the food. To their knowledge no one had ever researched the effect of background noise on the enjoyment of food, but one thing that is common to all airlines is the ambient noise of the aircraft, so they decided to test the hypothesis that the noise plays an important role.
Scientists 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 noise via headphones. Foods used in the trials included cheese crackers and flapjacks, and the results showed that the louder the noise, the less the people 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 scientists found a relationship between liking of music being played and liking of the food. Scientist said there is a general opinion that airline food "isn't fantastic," but since their chefs do their best, they wondered are there any 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 flavour.
The research clearly showed that the presence of loud noise dulled the perception of taste, but enjoyable music could enhance the eating experience. They said that 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 flavours of the meal. ■
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