Can Science be for Fun?

This is another instalment about my method to make sense of news stories about scientific research. It ends in a good, end-of-the week kind of way, tasty fodder for chat around the barbecue.

Today, I’ll look at this story about a research study on how flavours are perceived in different situations. The news story focuses on an experience you may have had – drinking tomato juice on an airplane. I chose this article because when I first read it, it seemed of general interest and not about a currently controversial topic (at least, I’m not aware that tomato juice or drinking of same has been linked to any particular issues).

Let me briefly summarize the news story: Airlines serve lots of tomato juice to on-flight guests, many of whom said they don’t drink tomato juice in other situations. The news story highlights a research study that tested whether loud noises, such as those experienced on an airborne airplane, could impact the perception of taste. In the study, volunteer test subjects listened to noise through headphones that simulated being in an airplane and then were asked about how a bunch of food samples tasted. The same people were asked how the same things tasted on another day without the noise. Perception of sweet tastes were inhibited by listening to noise, while the perception of umami, the rich, savoury flavour in tomato, was enhanced 20%. The news article closes with speculation on other factors that might influence juice consumption.

The five simple questions that form my method for accessing any story:

  1.  What do the numbers really mean?
  2. Are all facts from a reliable source? Are the quotes in the context that they were intended?
  3. What is ‘proven’ and what is inferred from the facts?
  4. What else is at stake or who else could benefit by the reported conclusion?
  5. Why haven’t you heard about this before? Or if you have, why hasn’ t something been done about it?

Applying these questions to the tomato juice story:

1. The numbers. The article talks of the consumption of 1.7 million litres of tomato juice in one year. Is that a lot, if the same airline transports almost 90 million people in the same time period? For this discussion, it’s more significant that people state that they don’t normally drink the juice when not flying but do drink it in the air. The umami taste was enhanced by 20% by listening to noise. I’m not sure what that means in functional terms. I can easily image inhibiting taste – the sample tastes bland, not sweet. What is enhanced taste – more intense taste? And is that necessarily a good thing? There is certainly such a thing as too salty, too hot and too sweet for many of us. I don’t think it’s simple to relate the perception of taste to the desire to consume tomato juice.

2. A reliable source. The scientific study cited was from the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance which is a publication of the American Psychological Association, the worlds largest association of professional psychologists. If that isn’t enough, there is the impact factor for each scientific journal which reflects how often other scientists acknowledge the work in the journal. This journal has a respectable impact factor, if not a top ranked one.

3. What is proven? The scientific study demonstrates that the umami taste, found in tomato juice, is perceived more strongly on a background of loud noise. This doesn’t explain why people want to drink it on a plane. Despite the title, this limitation is clearly outlined in the news story.

4. Who could benefit from the report? More people might want to drink tomato juice after reading the article but it’s unlikely to have a big impact on juice consuming habits. There are no specific brands associated with the story. The story did get considerable coverage in the press, with many news services running a piece, highlighting the researcher and Cornell university. The area, of how food tastes and ways to make food tastier, is big business so  these findings might be important for planning airline menus which could benefit many interests.

5. Why haven’t you heard about this before. Obviously this doesn’t fall into the ‘someone needs to do something about this’ category. But it is interesting to know that noise can effect how our food tastes.¹

The news article caught my interest because it was about something I knew nothing about. If my method of reading articles about science is going to be useful, it has to be useful for many circumstances. After the analysis, I’m enjoying the story for the shear joy of learning.

Isn’t that cool?

New knowledge about human is interesting. Why is there a link between how things taste and what we hear? What evolutionary setting made this an advantage? I can imagine that it would be a good idea to not be so wrapped up in our lunch that we ignore the sound of a sabre tooth tiger crashing through the jungle in our direction, i.e. loud sounds divert attention away from food.

But it makes me wonder, what other non-intuitive influences does modern technology have on the way we perceive our environment?

¹ The study would imply that in other situations where there was loud noise certain things might taste better. I haven’t noticed that the beer tastes better at rock concerts I frequent, but there might be other factors involved.

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