Innovation and Technology

Can loud noises influence the way we taste food?

Can you eat with your ears? While this sounds like a strange question, evidence suggests that this weird phenomenon may actually be possible as loud noises have been reported to influence the way that we taste our food.

How can sound influence the way we taste?

A recent study suggests that it's not just flavour, ingredients and cooking choices that can influence the taste of certain foods. Researchers from Cornell University set out to assess multi-sensory perception among around 50 participants to see if there was a correlation between hearing and sense of taste1.

Both men and women in the study were given liquid solutions at different concentrations of the five main tastes – sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savoury – also known as umami.

To truly glean whether or not sound can influence our tastes, researchers made the study interesting by exposing all participants to conditions with normal noise and those with increased sound levels, such as that of an airplane cabin.

Can loud noises really affect the way we taste food?Can loud noises really affect the way we taste food?

Why use similar noise levels of an airplane cabin?

With just under 40 million people flying to and from Australia in the year June 2016 to June 2017, according to the Australian Government2, a lot of plane food – which is often criticised – is eaten during these flights. The average airplane cabin sees noise levels of 85 decibels (dB) and with high volumes of people dining in this environment, it made for a great choice. 

40 million people flew to and from Australia in the year June 2016 to June 2017.

The results of the study found that there were no dramatic differences in how the participants rated the salty, sour or bitter tastes in both the lower and louder hearing environments. However, in the plane cabin-esque noise conditions, the intensity of the sweet taste was lower and the umani (savoury) taste was increased1.

The heightened taste of the savoury product helps to explain the popularity of a certain fruit juice consumed on flights: tomato juice. Passengers tend to consume nearly as much tomato juice as they do beer, according to German airline Lufthansa. This is because tomatoes are full of umami-rich substances.

Oxford University lecturer, Professor Charles Spence wrote the book 'Gastrophysics' to highlight the link between noise levels on airplanes and how we perceive tastes. According to his findings, Spence explains we need to consume 20-30 per cent more salt to make it taste like it would if we weren't experiencing high noise levels.

Could this be the reason why we crave tomato juice while flying?Could this be the reason why we crave tomato juice while flying?

What could these findings mean for the future?

Along with Spence's theories, the study and its results not only explain why noisy environments don't make for the best dining experiences, they could also help to develop more desirable foods for high-noise level places, like airplanes. Although some airlines have tried to incorporate high-umami foods into their menus, such as curries, the higher salt content tends to make such meals unhealthier, but it's a constant work in progress.

So, the next time you're flying and you order a bloody Mary, you'll understand why!

If you're over the age of 26 and would like to test your own cognitive abilities, reach out to the team at Adelaide Digital Hearing Solutions today on 1800 940 982 or click here to request an appointment at no cost*.

1American Psychological Association, A Crossmodal Role for Audition in Taste Perception. Accessed September 2017
2Australian Government, International airline activity. Accessed September 2017

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