Background noise 'makes food taste bland'
The blandness of airline meals has long been a complaint among passengers – but research suggests that the chefs may not be to blame.
A study has found that high levels of background noise can diminish the sensitivity of people’s palates, making food taste less appealing.
Experts believe that the roar of an aircraft’s jet engines could explain why diners are so often left unimpressed by the food dished up by cabin crew.
The researchers also discovered that pleasant sounds can increase people’s enjoyment of meals.
The findings, published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, could help restaurateurs choose the right music and ambience to enhance diners’ experiences.
Blindfolded volunteers were given a range of foods including flapjacks and cheese crackers to try while being played different levels of white noise.
Their responses indicated that people had a less acute sense of the sweetness and saltiness of foods the louder the noise was played.
However, participants had a heightened sense of the crunchiness of foods the noisier it became.
"There's a general opinion that aeroplane foods aren't fantastic," said lead researcher Dr Andy Woods, from Unilever 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. There was no previous research on this, so we went about seeing if the hunch was correct."
He added: “Our research has revealed that flavours can taste less strong in loud background noise.
“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.”
Unilever said it intends to undertake more research to explain the findings. It is thought that background noise may distort the brain’s ability to accurately gauge the senses.
“We could ultimately work out the perfect soundtrack to enhance any meal,” added Dr Woods.