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Science explains why you crave that tomato goodness on airplanes

Cornell researchers just gave you an excellent excuse to order a bloody mary (or four) the next time you fly the friendly skies, as if you needed one. According to a study published in the March volume of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, the sensory changes that happen in an airplane at altitude have an odd effect: They enhance your taste for “umami” flavors, something tomatoes have in spades.

“Our study confirmed that in an environment of loud noise, our sense of taste is compromised. Interestingly, this was specific to sweet and umami tastes, with sweet taste inhibited and umami taste significantly enhanced,” said Robin Dando, assistant professor of food science. “The multisensory properties of the environment where we consume our food can alter our perception of the foods we eat.”

Airplane food has long been the butt of standup comic jokes, largely for its bad taste. A decade or two ago, no one was sure (or bothered to care, at least) why that was – most people assumed a lack of effort on the airline’s fault, since they were serving an extremely captive audience. If not that, then maybe caution about dietary guidelines for things like salt and fat were to blame. But as more research was done on the topic, it became more apparently that eating – and tasting, specifically – is a multi-sense event.

The biggest culprit is the air: Incredibly dry and typically cool, it has a remarkable effect on our sense of smell, upon which our sense of taste is heavily dependent. Without the ability to smell food properly, even a fine meal will taste comparatively bland. This latest research finds that sound evidently plays a part too. The study was commissioned when German airline Lufthansa noticed passengers ordering tomato juice at the same rate as beer.

“The multisensory nature of what we consider ‘flavor’ is undoubtedly underpinned by complex central and peripheral interactions,” said Dando. “Our results characterize a novel sensory interaction, with intriguing implications for the effect of the environment in which we consume food.”

Umami is a Japanese word, and it describes a fifth taste beyond salty, sweet, bitter and sour. It’s English translation is “savory,” and it refers to foods that have a meaty, sumptuous flavor to them. What it actually describes is the way we perceive glutamates, an amino acid found in everything from meats to mushrooms to the flavor enhancer MSG.

Parmesan cheese is another high-glutamate food, so a pasta dish with red sauce would probably incredible in that enhanced environment. Worcestershire sauce – a key ingredient in most bloody mar mixes, hint hint – is also an umami superstar.