Despite the best efforts of Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and other celebrity chefs enlisted by airlines to jazz up their menus, a new study suggests that in-flight meals will forever be bland. It's not the preparation, it's our perception. As reported by the BBC, a study in the journal Food Quality and Preference shows that background noise can adversely affect both the flavor and texture of food.
Before you accuse the Food Quality and Preference editors of publishing frivolous, sensationalistic research, consider their other reports: "Consistent flavor naming predicts recognition memory in children and young adults"; "Impact of proprioception and tactile sensations in the mouth on the perceived thickness of semi-solid foods"; "Conditioning unfamiliar and familiar flavours to specific positive emotions."
These people are serious about flavor.
Forty-eight subjects were fed sweet and salty snacks while wearing headphones, with and without background noise. When the food was eaten in silence, flavors were more intense; with the noise, food was perceived as crunchier. But why?
Dr. Andy Woods, a researcher at the University of Manchester, told the BBC, "The evidence points to this effect being down to where your attention lies - if the background noise is loud it might draw your attention to that, away from the food."
There's also the issue of qualitative noise. As the BBC reported, "there is the suggestion that the overall satisfaction with the food aligned with the degree to which diners liked what they were hearing." Which won't surprise anyone with kids.
Apparently, NASA has known this for years. Astronauts commonly report that in-flight meals are bland; some lose their sense of taste entirely. Several theories attempt to explain this -- from zero-gravity-induced sinus congestion to bland government rations. But if Dr. Woods is correct, it's the ever-present white noise that comes with being crammed into a flying tin can.
It may be time to splurge on those $300 noise-cancelling headphones you've been eyeing. For the sake of your tastebuds.
Jeff Koyen is the Deputy Online Editor of Travel + Leisure.