Sonic Seasoning explains the airplane-tomato juice phenomenon

The In-Flight Tomato Juice Mystery Decoded

Ever been on a flight and felt like ordering a tomato juice? You’re not alone. A 2003 study in Germany showed that about 3% of all tomato juice consumption took place from the air. In that year alone, Lufthansa reportedly served passengers over 316,000 gallons of tomato juice.

So what is it that makes tomato juice so appealing from 35,000 feet above ground? The answer, according to researches at Oxford University, is not in the altitude, but rather, the sound of the airplane. More specifically, the drone of the airplane engines deadens passenger’s sensitivity to flavor, causing a dulled sense of taste. Tomato juice, says Professor Charles Spence, has an “umami flavor” which is “one of the only tastes that is strong enough to be perceived over the sound of the engines.” Spence is one of the professors behind the concept of “sonic seasoning,” which hypothesizes that the perceived taste of food or drink can be altered depending on the presence of sound or music.

Beyond tomato juice, your best bet when jet-setting is actually crunchy or spicy foods, as these are the most likely to cut through the white noise and still make a noticeable impact on your taste buds.  An added defense could be to tune into music that lights up the sweet or salty areas of the brain through sonic cues.

Sonic Seasoning and Your Health

Sonic seasoning doesn’t have to be relegated to aviation. Simply listening to music that triggers certain areas in your brain can allow you to perceive the food you eat as more sweet, salty, sour or bitter.  My diet would personally benefit from being able to eat air popped popcorn with a little salt over the movie theater version.  Perhaps salty sounds, like the ones in the video below, can help me do just that.

Next time you feel unsatisfied reaching for the low fat fruit yogurt over the berry pie (this happens to me almost on a daily basis!), try listening to music that triggers your “sweet” receptors in your brain.  The subtle “sonic seasoning” could be just what you need to trick your brain into thinking you’ve just had a sweet treat when you’re really making a smart choice for your diet and health.

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