Why You Always Seem to Want Tomato Juice on an Airplane

If a Bloody Mary is your drink of choice while flying, science might have an answer for why. (Photo: Flickr/Iwan Gabovitch)

Have you ever had an unexplainable urge to order tomato juice or a Bloody Mary while on a flight (especially if they’re not part of your usual beverage repertoire)? You may be able to blame the airplane noise for that, a new study suggests.

Previous research has shown that the air pressure and air quality in a plane cabin can have a dulling effect on taste buds. And now, this new research shows that the noise on an airplane could also have an effect on taste — specifically, making umami taste seem much stronger, while suppressing perceptions of sweet taste.

What’s umami, exactly? It’s a Japanese term used to capture the sweet-ish, savory taste of amino acids like glutamate in foods like tomato juice. In other words: Mid-flight aboard a jetliner, when sounds reach about 85 decibels, you’re suddenly craving tomato juice in a big way.

So what’s the science behind the connection? It has to do with something study researcher Robin Dando, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University, noticed while conducting work on the nerves that pass signals from the tongue to the brain. 

Related: Some People ‘Hear’ Colors And ‘Taste’ Sounds. Seriously.

“This nerve happens to pass right across the middle ear, in contact with the eardrum,”Dando tells Yahoo Health. “Nerves are very sensitive, so this led me to wonder whether the signal was in some way affected when under conditions of loud noise. A pretty interesting example of this is an airplane cabin, interesting as people always complain about the quality of the food on airlines.”

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, involved having study participants wear headphones, where they listened to sounds meant to mimic airplane noise. After around 45 minutes of listening to the recording, and reading or working like so many do on planes, the participants were then given a series of tests meant to assess taste sensitivity and other sensory traits.

Most of the senses weren’t affected by the noise, nor most of the tastes (bitter, salty, sour, and so on) researchers tested for — with the exception of sweet taste, which was suppressed, and umami taste, which was stronger.

Related: How Your Taste Buds Can Help You Lose Weight

This isn’t the first time researchers have looked into those mid-flight tomato cravings. Germany’s Lufthansa Airlines actually noticed its passengers were downing as much tomato juice as beer while up in the air, prompting the airline to commission a private study last year. That research showed that cabin pressure enhances tomato flavors.

We can now add Cornell’s new umami finding to the pile— but it’s important for another reason, too. “This would mean that the balance of flavors in food would be upset,”says Dando. “Foods prepared on the ground would not taste the same once in the air if the same held up in a real airplane cabin.”

Knowing this, airlines could tailor their food for in-flight taste preferences. “This could be a reason why people have been complaining for so many years about airline food,”Dando says. “Maybe it tastes OK when it’s prepared, but the actual sensory environment on a plane is not the same, and alters our perception of how it tastes.”

Related: Why You Should Be Drinking Tomato Juice

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