What's That Flavor? I Can't Taste It Over All This Noise

By Jennifer Welsh | October 14, 2010 2:06 pm

tasteWhite noise doesn’t just drown out other noises, it drowns out taste too, says research in the appropriately named Journal of Food Quality and Preference. This could help explain why airplane food tastes so bland, why we eat more with the TV on, and why space tourists need such strong beer, the study’s first author told BBC News:

“There’s a general opinion that aeroplane foods aren’t fantastic,” said Andy Woods, a researcher from Unilever’s laboratories and the University of Manchester.  “I’m sure airlines do their best – and given that, we wondered if there are other reasons why the food would not be so good. One thought was perhaps the background noise has some impact.”

To test this theory Woods had a group of taste testers eat a variety of foods with head phones on and piped in either white noise or no sounds. The white noise not only made the food less tasty, it also increased the perceived crunch of the food. The noise could be drawing attention away from savoring the food, Wood said to BBC News:

“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,” Dr Woods said.

While the experiment is interesting, it doesn’t completely explain why astronauts seem to lose their sense of taste while they’re in orbit. This phenomenon could be related to the noisiness of the space station, with averages of around 75 decibels in the work station, but it could also be a mysterious side effect of weightlessness.

The group is hoping to expand the understanding of how sound influences food experiences. Any breakthroughs they come up with could even be used to improve eating enjoyment, Woods told The Telegraph:

“In addition, just as enjoyable music can enhance the eating experience, if you dislike the background noise it can reduce your liking of that food. Based on these findings, a salad bar chain wanting to serve crunchy salads may find that they benefit from louder music, whereas a restaurant that serves salty food could consider turning the background music down to reduce the need for additional sodium in their food.”

If only they could find a sound that makes kids enjoy eating their vegetables.

Related content:
DISCOVER: Like Chips in the Night
Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: But do vegetarians taste better?
Discoblog: Nano Snacks! Researchers Say Edible Nanostructures Taste Like Saltines
Discoblog: Space Tourists Will Get Their Own Special Space Beer
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Fruit flies have a taste for fizzy drinks

Image: Flickr/alistelis

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