As the battle between major international carriers to attract more business and first class passengers escalates, some airlines have intensified efforts to improve menus and even hired top Michelin stared chefs to create alluring dishes.
But the challenges for chefs to create taste-rich dishes prepared and cooked three days before a flight capable of enduring time and altitude are compounded by something called white noise.
According to Barry Smith, a professor at the University of London who co-directs the Center for the Study of the Senses, the sound of white noise on aircraft diminishes the tongue’s ability to detect and discriminate between flavors.
And as FriendsEAT co-founder Antonio Evans points out, what most people mistake as taste is actually flavor, since it’s the nose that perceives all of it. “Try pinching your nose while eating strawberries. You know it’s sweet, but there’s the lack of flavor that makes it strawberry.”
Smith works with psychologists and neurologists to study how the brain perceives flavor, and claims some airlines have attempted to undermine this effect with noise-reducing headphones in business class.
Smith explains that our ability to taste flavors does not come solely from our tongues, which has prompted chefs such as Heston Blumenthal, in association with with British Airways, to seek other solutions.
The trigeminal nerve is responsible for sensation in the face, and allows us to detect spiciness in food — it causes a stinging feeling, for instance, when we eat wasabi. But the nerve is not affected by noise, Smith said.
So Blumenthal’s soultion was to heighten the perception of taste by stimulating the trigeminal nerve. To do this, Blumenthal started using stronger spices, such as curries, in the airline meals. “Suddenly, people were saying the food tasted better,” he said.
In a promotional video for British Airways, Blumenthal describes some of the other environmental factors inside airplanes that prevent us from enjoying our meals.
“Eating in an airplane is a bit like doing this,” he said, plugging his ears and pretending to chew. “You don’t get the texture, which is really important.”
Being aware of how the brain responds to these effects are important, Smith said, and has practical implications in kitchens all over the world.
“If we know the science of how the brain works,” he said, “we can overcome some of the limitations of eating in certain environments.”