Do noise levels influence our flavor perception?

ariplane cabin
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Reference: Yan, K. S., & Dando, R. (2015). A crossmodal role for audition in taste perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance41(3), 590.

Guest post by Michelle Whittlesey

Have you ever wondered whether different environments affect the way you perceive different scents or flavors?  For example, does a meal smell or taste better when it is presented on a fancy plate?  Does the presence of a loud noise make food taste different?

As early as 1936, researcher H.C. Moir (1) suggested that the way a meal is presented, as well as the physical dining environment a person is in, can affect how the meal tastes. Such an occurrence is driven by crossmodal experiences —  an interaction of multiple sensations (e.g., sight and taste) present at the same time.  For example, Ferber and Cabanac (2) noticed high-pitched noise overpowered a person’s ability to rate how sweet a particular food item tasted, whereas low pitches affected how bitter the food tasted. These findings inspired researchers Kimberly Yan and Robin Dando to investigate whether loud noises affect the perception of taste in a similar manner as does sight and pitch.  Specifically, the researchers hypothesized that the levels of sound people hear within an airplane cabin would affect the perception of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory (i.e., umami) flavor of the food they are eating.

water
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Method

Forty-eight students and staff from Cornell University were placed in a real airplane cabin and sampled 15 different tastes: five different flavors, each with three different flavor intensities (low, medium, and high concentrations). The researchers dissolved various particles in water to achieve the various flavors: Sucrose, Sodium Chloride, Citric Acid, Monosodium Glutamate, and Quinine Hydrochloride, which corresponded to sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory flavors respectively. Participants sampled the fifteen glasses of flavored water both with and without loud aircabin background noise (i.e., sound and silence conditions).

When participants were in the aircabin with background noise, they received 80-85 decibels (equivalent to the volume of heavy city traffic) of white noise through a set of headphones. When participants were in the silence condition, they still wore the headphones, but the volume was turned off. Only a small amount of environmental sounds, such as seat shifting, could be heard outside of the headphones. Half of the participants performed the taste test with sound first, whereas the other half of participants performed the taste test in silence first.

Participants sampled each glass of flavored water in a two-ounce cup labeled with a random code so they could not see which flavor nor which flavor concentration they were sampling. After sampling each of the glasses of water, participants rated each sample on the general labeled magnitude scale (gLMS) – a scale that ranks flavor intensity starting at 1 (“barely detectable”) and ending at 15 (“the strongest imaginable”). Between each sample, participants cleansed their palette by rising with plain water.

Capture
(3) Researchers found that aircabin noise affects our flavor perception – sweetness is suppressed whereas savoriness is enhanced.

Results

Supporting the researchers’ hypothesis, loud noise did influence taste perception to some extent.  In particular, the presence of aircabin sound caused the sweet water to taste blander across all three concentration levels. Participants rated all three glasses of sweet water lower on the gLMS scale when they heard white noise compared to when they did not.  In contrast, savoriness was perceived more intensely when sampled in a loud aircabin – participants rated the savory water higher on the gLMS scale in the noise condition than in the silence condition, particularly at higher concentrations.  Salty, bitter, and sour flavors were not affected by aircabin noise. That is, no significant differences were found between the sound and silence conditions for these flavors.

Conclusion

Yan and Dando hypothesized that airplane cabin noise would affect the perception of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory tastes.  Indeed, the results indicated that aircabin noise does affect our flavor perception – sweetness is suppressed whereas savoriness is enhanced.

These findings raise important questions for future research. First, why does this particular crossmodal experience occur? Yan and Dando attribute their findings to brain activity resulting from the consumption of sweet and savory foods; both flavor sensations stimulate endings of the chorda tympani nerve, which is located near the eardrum in the brain.  More research is necessary to know for sure.  Second, most meals contain a complex combination of flavors – how does noise level affect the perception of multiple flavors at once?  Finally, Yan and Dando also noticed that participants with similar ethnic origin all seemed to provide similar ratings for certain flavors. Thus, researchers should consider the role of ethnic origin in flavor perception.

We often forget just how powerful the human mind is, especially when it comes to the interaction between our senses. Yan and Dando captured our curiosity in regard to something as simple as eating on an airplane. Next time you sit down for a meal you know and love, take a moment to reflect on your environment.  See for yourself if you notice a difference in the flavors you are eating!

Michelle Whittlesey Professional Photo.jpgMichelle is a junior at Kent State University pursuing a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Psychology with a minor in Philosophy. Michelle is the Administrator of the Kent State Psychological Sciences’ Peer Mentor Program, where inexperienced psychology majors are paired with experienced psychology majors for learning and growth. Michelle is also a Research Assistant for Dr. Katherine Rawson’s Cognitive Lab at Kent State. When she is away from her studies, Michelle works a part-time job to keep up with life’s expenses. In her free time, Michelle loves to play piano to relax her stress away. She also enjoys spending time with her childhood cat, Coco. Within the year, Michelle plans to apply to graduate school for School Psychology, Career and Academic Counseling, or Educational Administration. Michelle believes her purpose is to guide people to theirs. She greatly enjoys giving advice, teaching a concept, and providing guidance regarding an individual’s journey to whatever goal is next.

Images: (1) Photo by MaxPixel. Retrieved from: https://www.maxpixel.net/Seat-Inner-Workings-Aircraft-Holiday-Travel-2171956. (2) Photo by Pxhere. Retrieved from: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/848596. (3) Figure 3 and 4 of Yan and Dado (2015) adapted with permission.

Additional References:
(1) Moir, H. C. (1936). Some observations on the appreciation of flavour in food stuffs. Chemistry & Industry Review, 55, 145–148.

(2) Ferber, C., & Cabanac, M. (1987). Influence of noise on gustatory affective ratings and preference for sweet or salt. Appetite, 8, 229 –235.