Flying at 30,000 feet may offer the chance to kick back and enjoy a movie with a delicious meal and cocktail, but it turns out that the experience can play some interesting tricks on our taste buds. Flying, even short distances, can cause various bodily changes, including dehydration, exhaustion, and inner-ear swelling, which can also affect our sense of taste. Professor Charles Spence and his team at Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory delved into the impact of airplane noise on the taste of foods and drinks during flights.
Their research revealed that the dry cabin air, changes in air pressure, and the constant hum of the engine contribute to a reduction in our ability to taste sweet and salty flavors while flying. As a result, airline meals require more salt and sugar to maintain a similar taste to ground-based dining. Interestingly, the noise seems to enhance the taste of umami, making savory drinks like Bloody Marys more enjoyable. Spence compared this phenomenon to a form of “sonic seasoning” that brings out the umami taste.
To improve the taste of your in-flight meals and beverages, Spence suggests using noise-canceling headphones to counter the engine noise, and listening to music you genuinely enjoy can enhance the dining experience. High-pitched sounds can emphasize sweetness, while lowering the pitch brings out bitter notes. However, he ultimately advises passengers to order what they like most, just as he personally prefers a G&T despite acknowledging he should opt for a Bloody Mary. In the end, the choice of beverage remains a matter of personal preference.