How Extreme Noise Conditions Affect Our Sense of Taste

taste perception affected by noise

We all know that eating doesn’t only involve our sense of taste but also all our other senses.

Food that smells good is more enticing than something that’s pungent or has a foul odor. This is why very few people even care to try the durian fruit or stinky tofu. But find it easy to take a taste out of cinnamon rolls or chocolate chip cookies.

In the same light, food that’s plated well and is visually appealing also increases our appetite while sloppy, messy foods, or those that look like unsavory items turn us away.

In a new study, researchers from Cornell University in New York found that the noise level in your eating environment affects how your taste buds perceive food.

Loud noise, like that in the enclosed airplane cabin, tends to dull some of the flavors while enhances the desire for other flavors.

This, along with the high altitude environment and cabin pressure, may explain in part why airplane food is often disliked.


Understanding How Noise Level Affects Our Taste Perception

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

In it, researchers recruited 48 panelists made up of 11 male subjects and 37 female participants. The participants weren’t told of the experiment’s objective, and each panelist performed their taste tests in isolated booths so as not to be influenced by other panelists.

Each panelist was given taste solutions in 2 oz. cups.

In total there were 5 basic tastes tested namely, sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. Each of the solutions were given as low, medium and high concentrations.

This resulted in 15 different taste levels tried by each panelist.

To simulate the loud noise environment of an airplane cabin, the scientists fitted the panelists with high definition headphones, which played recorded airplane cabin noise. The sound level was delivered at 80 dB to 85 dB which is the average noise level of a typical airplane environment.

For each of the solutions, participants were asked to determine how much they tasted ranging from “barely detectable” to “strongest imaginable”.


Less Sweet, More Umami

What researchers found was that in the loud airline noise environment, our sense of taste for sweet flavors is suppressed, while our taste perception for the umami flavor increases.

Sour, bitter and salty tastes weren’t affected by the change in noise environment.

Looking at different factors that affected the results, they narrowed down its effects on the surrounding noise.


What This Means for Us

The study reveals that eating is a multisensory experience that not only involves our sense of tastes, as well as smell, touch and vision. It also is affected by our auditory senses.

Changing the volume and possibly the sound of the environment affects how we perceive certain flavors. This totally changes our taste perception.

As a result, this sheds more light on why airplane food is often associated with hospital food in terms of taste, despite all the research and experimentation that airlines and their chefs have spent testing their food in chambers that mimic high altitude environments.

For most of us, who at some point will travel by air as passengers, this gives us that added knowledge of what to order and what to avoid the next time we choose a meal when we fly.

Choosing dishes that have a salty, bitter or sour flavor are good choices. Though the best one would be those that offer that umami flavor.

In the same light, avoiding anything sweet like desserts would be a good option since we’d probably end up being disappointed due to the lack of sweetness we’ll be able to taste.