If your in-flight Coca-Cola and Biscoff cookies taste a bit off at 30,000 feet, it’s not you. It’s the searing sound of jet engines.
A 2014 study conducted by experimental psychologist Charles Spence, a professor at the University of Oxford, found that blistering decibels of noise on airplanes dulls certain tastes, such as sweetness. But oddly, they discovered that umami, the savory taste, didn’t just seem to be immune to heightened noise levels. Umami flavor may be enhanced by loud background noises. It’s perhaps why tomato juice constitutes 27% of all drink orders on airplanes; people crave the umami-rich beverage on flights despite not drinking it elsewhere.
Researchers note in the study that “should it be proved that the perception of umami is indeed noise-insensitive, then one might also want to recommend an umami-rich menu—that is, foods such as parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and mushrooms—to all those vocal restaurant critics out there.” This belief seems to be catching on. As The New York Times reports, British Airways revamped its menu several years ago to include a bigger selection of umami-laden foods, and airlines based in both Scandinavia and Hong Kong have introduced special beers that taste great to our altered, high-flying taste buds.
But airlines are getting increasingly creative with the links between taste, sound, noise, and music. These movements are part of what Spence has dubbed “sonic seasoning,” or exploring how sound changes the way we perceive tastes such as sourness and sweetness. In 2014, for instance, British Airways unveiled a feature on their flights entitled “Sound Bites,” where people could tune into a specially-curated playlist meant to enhance the flavors in their food, and enjoy, say, Verdi operas while digging into pasta.