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Why Airline Food Tastes Bad, and Always Will

Thought experiment: Imagine eating that coach-class chicken dinner in a quiet restaurant instead of in a cramped, noisy aircraft cruising at 35,000 feet. If you think the airline’s take on Chicken Cordon Bleu would taste better on terra firma than in flight, you’re probably right.

As has become increasingly clear in recent years, eating is a multisensory experience. The sense of taste doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Sound, sight, touch all play a part in how something tastes. Or, as a recent Cornell paper has it: “The multisensory properties of the environment where we consume our food can alter our perception of the foods we eat.”

The study, “A Crossmodal Role for Audition in Taste Perception,” specifically homes in on the effect ambient noise has on diners’ sense of taste. And as a perfect example of a noise-rich environment, the study’s authors cite the 85-decibel sound level typical of a commercial aircraft in cruise mode. What they found: “Our study confirmed that in an environment of loud noise, our sense of taste is compromised.”

The study also mentions Lufthansa research confirming that cabin pressure had an effect on taste.

More expansively, a recent New Yorker article, “Accounting for Taste,” profiles the work of Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, and a leader in researching the multisensory nature of taste. Spence has confirmed links between food’s taste and the color of the plates it’s served on, the type of music playing in the background, and a host of other sensory variables.

The bottom line is that taste is highly contextual. And as contexts go, a cramped coach-class seat hurtling noisily through the air at 500 miles per hour is a taste-changer, if not a taste-killer.

That’s not say that airlines couldn’t invest heavily in understanding the effects of the total flying environment on taste and adjust their recipes and cooking techniques to compensate. That’s a possibility, in theory.

But I won’t hold my breath. What I will do, however, is bring ear plugs with me on my next flight, in hopes of scoring a taste upgrade on the inflight meal. You might want to do the same.

Reader Reality Check

How do you approach inflight dining: bring food with you, or buy onboard?

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This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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