Food Tastes Better Without Noise
Any harried parent who has ever tried to eat a meal during a child's birthday party with 30 screaming kids in the room will tell you they barely taste the food. And now we know why.
A new study out of the United Kingdom has shown that loud background noise can actually affect the way we taste things, lessening our sensitivity to the flavor. When sweet is not so sweet and salty barely registers, everything becomes bland and less appealing.
The researchers, from the University of Manchester in England, gave a variety of foods to the 48 blindfolded test participants. These included sweet flapjacks and salty crackers. All of the subjects ate the same foods and wore headphones while dining -- some with loud white noise playing, some with soft white noise playing, and some with no noise at all being played.
And, as you might guess from what we've already said, those who listened to the loudest background noise reported that the food was less sweet and less salty than the other two groups. The participants listening to the loud noise only had a heightened perception of the crunchiness of the foods they consumed.
The researchers created this experiment to gain some understanding as to whether noise can influence the way we taste our food because of the almost universal dislike of airline meals. They theorized that maybe it was the roar of the engines that somehow makes anything we eat on an airplane less pleasing.
Since most of us don't fly nearly as often as we eat out, the results are more relevant to our restaurant experiences. Compare a nice dinner at a fine restaurant complete with soft music, great ambiance, and quiet conversations all around with a meal at a local chain eatery with music blaring and loud voices from the bar area filled with patrons watching a football game. Maybe the quality of the food is better at the nicer establishment…or maybe your meal actually tastes more delicious there because of the more peaceful atmosphere. (Nah! I'm pretty sure, noise aside, the quality is better at the better restaurants. Lower noise levels merely enhance the perception of quality.)
Which brings us to fast food restaurants. The noise levels in those restaurants are generally very high, since they are an appealing option to so many teenagers and families with young children and are often located in mall food courts and airline terminals. According to the research findings in this study, their patrons will not taste nearly as much of the saltiness and sweetness of their food as they should. So what's a restaurant to do but jack the salt and sugar through the roof so patrons can taste their food. This discovery is alarming considering the sodium, sugar, and fat content of most of their menu items.
A quick glance at some popular choices at McDonald's shows that a Quarter Pounder with Cheese has 1190 mg of sodium (50% of the daily value for a 2,000 calorie diet) and 26 g of fat (40% of the DV). Add in a medium Coke with 58 g of sugar and some fries with all the salt you sprinkle on them and all the ketchup you dip them in, and you've got a meal to be proud of. Their 10-Piece Chicken Nuggets is no better at 1000 mg of sodium (42% of the DV) and 29 g of fat (44% of the DV) -- again, plus Coke and fries.
At Baja Fresh, sodium levels for burritos range from 1790 mg to a whopping 3650 mg for a Nacho Burrito served Enchilada Style. To give you some perspective, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a maximum of 1,500 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily. That means that a single serving of the healthiest burrito at Baja Fresh busts your day's recommended sodium intake -- and you still have two meals to go.
You might think upscale Panera Bread would offer a healthier alternative for lunch than your typical fast food restaurant. But their Italian Combo Sandwich on Ciabatta has an astounding 3080 mg of sodium (double the CDC recommendation) and 45 g of fat (70% of the DV).
Thanks to the Univeristy of Manchester study, we may now have a better understanding of why the food at fast food outlets and noisy chains is so deadly, but what can you do about it? Unfortunately, there are few healthy options at most of these restaurants, since no one buys them because they don't taste nearly as good as the bad stuff. And eating at a high-quality, expensive restaurant with no children and quiet music is not an option for most families on a regular basis, particularly when shopping at the mall. What to do? What to do?
Perhaps your best option is to get your food to go. True, it won't change the high levels of salt, fat, and sugar the restaurant places in your food, but perhaps in a quieter atmosphere, your sense of taste will become more finely tuned over time, allowing you to truly taste what you are eating. Then you will know for sure whether all that salt, sugar, and fat are really that appealing to you.