Tomato Juice in the Air

Many of us associate tomato juice with airplanes. According to Lufthansa, more tomato juice is served in-flight than beer. Meanwhile, in U.S.A., beer sales are several orders of magnitude larger than tomato juice sales.

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Another line of research looked at noise instead of pressure. In April 2015, Cornell taste physiologist Robin Dando published findings from a study in which he presented volunteers with each of the five fundamental flavors — sweet, salty, bitter, sour and the meaty-savory flavor called “umami”— as they listened to loud recordings of airplane-cabin noise. Their sweet perception was diminished, Dando’s group discovered, while their taste for umami went the other way. Since tomato juice has lots of umami, that might explain why people prefer it on planes: It’s among the only beverages that could have its major taste enhanced in flight.

Taken as a whole, these findings are a bit confusing. Do people crave flavors they can’t taste well on planes, like sweet and salty? Or those they taste especially well, like umami? Both science-based accounts also point to a strange (and suspicious) conclusion: tomato juice, as it’s been formulated for consumption on the ground, has its flavors misaligned. Mass-market food products are engineered with great precision, such that their tastes converge on “bliss points” — the specific levels of saltiness, sweetness and other flavors that create the most perfect, pleasurable response. But according to the scientific theory of the Mile High Tomato Club, this process must have gone astray. When it came to manufacturing tomato juice, Big Food engineers either added too much salt and sweet, or not enough umami; they somehow found a way to miss the bliss. Only on airplanes is their drink fully optimized for human consumption.

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