This story appears in the August 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The plane has reached cruising altitude, and flight attendants are moving down the aisle, taking drink orders. Suddenly tomato juice—or maybe even a Bloody Mary—sounds delicious.
Just a random craving? Not necessarily, says Robin Dando, Cornell University assistant professor of food science. The high decibel level in the cabin interferes with how people perceive taste. The palate registers sweets such as soft drinks less intensely, while the taste known as umami is heightened. Thirsty passengers may find they yearn specifically for something rich and savory, and they frequently choose tomato juice. In fact, the German airline Lufthansa estimates people consume about as much tomato juice as beer aboard its flights.
Oxford University psychologist Charles Spence, who studies how senses interact, says the phenomenon isn’t unique to aircraft. Other loud environments can also alter taste perception, he says—which may explain why dinner at a noisy restaurant doesn’t always hit the spot.