Science identifies the best in-flight meal (if you care about taste)

If you have to endure the horror of a meal on an airplane, a new study out of Cornell says some tastes are more intense than others. Order accordingly.

Danny Gallagher
CNET freelancer Danny Gallagher has contributed to Cracked.com, Mental Floss, Maxim, Break.com, Mandatory, Jackbox Games, Geeks Who Drink and many, many other publications in his never-ending quest to bring the world's productivity to a screeching halt. He lives and works in Dallas. Email Danny.
Danny Gallagher
2 min read

In-flight meals may be one of the least appetizing food options on the planet next to a reheated McDonald's Happy Meal or anything out of a gas station discount food bin. But when you're stuck on a plane, there's usually little choice.

YouTube video screenshot/CNET

Still, if you're staring down an in-flight menu and can't decide between the sweet-potato casserole and the salisbury steak smothered in what you hope is gravy, a new study says the saltier option would be your best bet when it comes to flavor.

Researchers from Cornell University's food science department found that the noisiness of a commercial airplane -- typically around 85 decibels -- can dramatically impact our tastebuds.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance online and upcoming in the print edition, found that the noise of a plane decreases the taste of sweeter flavors while enhancing more savory ones.

Researchers set up a simulated airplane cabin and had 48 participants taste and rate foods that represented "varying concentrations of the five basic tastes," according to the journal abstract. The participants gave foods with a sweeter taste a progressively lower rating but gave high marks to foods with "the perception of umami taste." Umami is a scientific Japanese word referring to a meaty or savory flavor, according to Merriam-Webster.

"The multi-sensory nature of what we consider 'flavor' is undoubtedly underpinned by complex central and peripheral interactions," Robin Dando, an assistant professor of food science at Cornell who co-authored the study, said in a statement. "Our results characterize a novel sensory interaction with intriguing implications for the effect of the environment in which we consume food."

This may explain why cocktails such as Bloody Marys are so popular on flights (aside from the fact that many nervous flyers need magic happy juice to calm them down after takeoff).

German airline Lufthansa commissioned a private study in 2010 after noticing that passengers had consumed 1.8 million liters of tomato juice in a single year. The Fraunhofer Institute, a research group in Munich, Germany, also set up a simulated airplane cabin in mid-flight and asked passengers to rate the taste of tomato juice. They gave the tomato juice a much higher rating in the simulated flying conditions than on the ground.

Cornell hopes this and other studies will help guide airline chefs and meal preparation departments to improve their menus. Frankly, I'd just be happy if they made their food edible.