Science Explains Why Airline Food Sucks

It's not the airplane food but the whirl of those engines ruining your meal.

October 15, 2010, 4:16 PM

Oct. 18, 2010— -- Appetizing has never been a word used to describe airline food. But now a team of scientists has come up with a reason why we hate airline food so much: the noise of the airplane engines.


Yes, according to researchers at the consumer product manufacturer Unilever and the University of Manchester. They say the annoyingly loud background noise from the airplane's engines disturb our senses and make us enjoy our food that much less.

You can't rule out the low cost of the food and environmental factors such as air pressure and the dryness of the air, researcher Andy Woods told ABC News. But even so, noise levels still have an impact on our enjoyment or dislike of food.

"If you can any way reduce the noise, you will make the whole experience better," said Woods, who suggests passengers wear noise-canceling headphones.

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The researchers fed 48 blindfolded participants a variety of foods from biscuits to rice crackers to cheddar cheese. At the same time, headphones either canceled out noise or provided various levels of white noise. The subjects then rated the intensity of the flavors and how much they liked or didn't like them.

The result: the higher the noise level, the less the participants tasted salty or sweet flavors. Their sensitivity to the crunchiness of their food was amplified.

But higher noise levels aren't enough to make people hate their meals.

Marcia Pelchat, a sensory psychologist at the Monell Center who specializes in food acceptance and preferences, said, "there are plenty of very successful restaurants that are very noisy."

"It depends not just on the presence of noise but the context," said Pelchat, who has not reviewed the full Unilever study.

And apparently context was key. Woods said that while noise levels had an effect on the intensity of saltiness and sweetness, higher levels of noise did not necessarily mean a bad meal.

Noise and Food Taste

In fact, if the subject liked the noise -- even if it was loud -- the food was more enjoyable. Conversely, if they hated the noise, the food was less enjoyable.

The Unilever team is now moving on to do research on different types of music and food enjoyment.

Pelchat thinks it is more than sound that affects a meal.

"Their results are probably correct but there's probably another piece to this story that we don't understand," she said.

Airlines have tried for years to find the cheapest, most effective way to cook without sacrificing taste -- well, too much taste.

Singapore Airlines is consistently ranked one of the best airlines for its cuisine. The airline has a pressurized conference room in its Singapore headquarters where the culinary and wine staff does tastings in an environment similar to that of an aircraft.

A few months ago, the airline let ABC News take part in a periodic review of its menu at an airport hangar.

The unique cooking conditions at 40,000 feet require the airline to rethink simple things, such as the amount of water added to a dish.

"One of the difficulties is, because we are cooking on the ground and then heating up [up in the air], the proportion of rice and liquid has to be just right, because otherwise you end up with a pancake upstairs," said Hermann Freidanck, who oversees all of the airline's food and beverage service. "When they reheat, the rice sucks out all the water."

Cooking on an Airplane

A dish takes about three hours from the time it is cooked on the ground to be loaded onto a cart, then loaded on a truck and then driven out to the plane. If there is a delay, it could be several more hours until passengers are actually served the food.

To help keep meals fresh, the different parts -- the meat, the potatoes, the vegetables -- are kept in separate foil compartments for business and first class meals. Each item, including the sauce, is then re-heated separately by the flight attendant onboard. The flight attendants then arrange each meal on a dish according to specifications set out in binders on each plane. There is even a photo -- taken by Freidanck and his team -- of how the dish should look.

Economy passengers don't get quite the same treatment. Their meals come in one ready-to-serve dish that is just re-heated. But Singapore Airlines still tries to plan its dishes for the best presentations. For instance, pork and rice are separated by a wall of vegetables in one dish -- better to help keep the sauces and tastes separate while heating and to prevent the rice from drying out.

That might be all great, but Woods still recommends putting on a pair of noise-canceling headphones and maybe your favorite music to better enjoy that next airplane meal.