Cruising at 35,000 feet messes with a person's sense of taste and smell, but it turns out there's another reason airplane meals are the worst — well, besides the fact that their quality is irrefutably subpar. It might be because of the cabin noise: Some new research out of Cornell shows that the loud hum messes with people's perceptions of two major tastes, umami and sweet. When people eat in loud surroundings, the study found, sweet things lose their sweetness and umami gets more pronounced. (They say strangely, the other three — salty, sour, and bitter — go unaffected.)
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The authors suggest that this could provide all kinds of helpful tips to airline caterers. For instance, one researcher notes enhanced umami probably explains why passengers are always drinking tomato juice. They also write that the ill effects of cabin noise are "likely the underlying reason that ... airline food [is] consistently rated lower than would be expected." Passengers may eye their mystery glop with low expectations, but apparently their ears are expecting fine dining.