Published On: Fri, May 15th, 2015

When flying, taste buds prefer savory tomato

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If you’re planning to fly over the summer, plan to drink some tomato juice. While examining how airplane noise affects the palate, Cornell University food scientists found that sweetness is suppressed and a tasty, tender tomato surprise: umami.

A Japanese scientific term, umami describes the sweet, savory taste of amino acids such as glutamate in foods like tomato juice, and according to the new study, in noisy situations — like the 85 decibels aboard a jetliner — umami-rich foods become your taste bud’s best buds.

“Our study confirmed that in an environment of loud noise, our sense of taste is compromised. Interestingly, this was specific to sweet and umami tastes, with sweet taste inhibited and umami taste significantly enhanced, ” said Robin Dando, assistant professor of food science. “The multisensory properties of the environment where we consume our food can alter our perception of the foods we eat.”

With Dando, Kimberly Yan, co-authored the study, “A Crossmodal Role for Audition in Taste Perception, ” published online in March in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. The research will appear in a forthcoming print edition of the journal.

The study may guide reconfiguration of airline food menus to make the food taste better. Auditory conditions in air travel actually may enhance umami, the researchers found. In contrast, exposure to the loud noise conditions dulled sweet taste ratings.

Airlines acknowledge the phenomenon. German airline Lufthansa had noticed that passengers were consuming as much tomato juice as beer. The airline commissioned a private study released last fall that showed cabin pressure enhanced tomato juice taste.

Taste perception depends not only on the integration of several sensory inputs associated with the food or drink itself, but also on the sensory attributes of the environment in which the food is consumed, the scientists say.

“The multi-sensory nature of what we consider ‘flavor’ is undoubtedly underpinned by complex central and peripheral interactions, ” said Dando. “Our results characterize a novel sensory interaction, with intriguing implications for the effect of the environment in which we consume food.”

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