Umami the new secret to in-flight menu success


Photograph by Ruth Fremson for The New York Times

In March, major news outlets covered airline management buzz around umami having a unique taste property: for some reason, it still works right at 35,000 feet.

According to the New York Times piece, “At high altitudes, only umami — the pleasant, savory “fifth” taste beloved by Japanese chefs — is enhanced for reasons that are not entirely clear. So Bloody Marys, which contain the umami-rich tomato and Worcestershire sauce, taste far better in the sky than on the ground. It’s the most consumed cocktail on passenger flights, airlines say.”

Charles Spence is an expert in how different sensory mechanisms interact with one another. He speculates that the noise on the plane, even at 80-85 decibels (“quieter than in a New York restaurant”), stresses out our inner cave(wo)man:

“When faced with predators or during stressful situations, our ancestors may have turned to umami, which prompts dollops of saliva, ‘in order to get the energy to fight or flight.'”

Combine that with humidity lower than most deserts, and low atmospheric pressure, and our smell mechanisms (which make up a big part of ‘flavor’ – or what most of us call ‘taste’) just don’t respond the way they do on the ground, according to taste expert Peter Barham of the University of Bristol…

Read the full article here: Airlines Aim to Trick Your Taste Buds at 30,000 Feet

(Article originally published March 1, 2017 on

Additional links:

LA Times – Palate pleasers at 30,000 feet

National Post – From opulence to budget, why is airline food so universally terrible and consistently disappointing?

The Boston Globe – Experts share their recipes for good food — and wine — at altitude

The Economist – What to drink at 30,000 feet – It’s all about umami for these airline specialty beverages





“The Hippies Have Won”


Photograph by Cole Wilson for the New York Times.

“Consider granola: The word used to be a derogatory term. Now it’s a supermarket category worth nearly $2 billion a year. Kombucha was something your art teacher might have made in her basement. The company GT’s Kombucha brews more than a million bottles annually and sells many of them at Walmart and Safeway. And almond milk? You can add it to your drink at 15,000 Starbucks locations for 60 cents.”

In her recent piece for the New York Times, Christine Muhlke walked us through the quirky, healthy, and undeniably hipster food trends that have flooded Instagram feeds and modish restaurant scenes across the country. The idea that these trends stem from advances in nutrition science (e.g. newfound understanding of the human microbiome informing the popularity of fermented foods) fits in with our hypothesis that the molecularization of taste has validated the acceptance of “umami-rich flavors” as a dietary staple.

Read the full article here: “The Hippies Have Won”

(Article originally published April 4th, 2017 on

Penguins Can’t Taste Umami. Eat Fish Anyway.


Image ID: corp2417, NOAA Corps Collection, Photographer: Giuseppe Zibordi, Credit: Michael Van Woert, NOAA NESDIS, ORA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Who doesn’t love reading about penguins?

In the seemingly random fashion of the internet, this study out of the University of Michigan was recently picked up by another blog (, where the above image featured. We think it’s interesting.

Original U Michigan coverage of the study findings are excerpted here:

“ANN ARBOR—A University of Michigan-led study of penguin genetics has concluded that the flightless aquatic birds lost three of the five basic vertebrate tastes—sweet, bitter and the savory, meaty taste known as umami—more than 20 million years ago and never regained them.

Because penguins are fish eaters, the loss of the umami taste is especially perplexing, said study leader Jianzhi “George” Zhang, a professor in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

“Penguins eat fish, so you would guess that they need the umami receptor genes, but for some reason they don’t have them…”

Read the whole article here: “Sweet, bitter, savory: penguins lack three of the five basic tastes”

Breaking down Ramen noodles, literally


(Image from YouTube video made by Stefani Bardin)

USA Today College

By LaTonya Darrisaw

“After a long day of classes, Macon State College senior Kristina Whitaker does not always have time to prepare a big, healthy meal. For at least two or three nights a week, her go-to food is Ramen noodles.

‘As a full-time college student, money and time are major issues that you have to deal with and buying packages of noodles are cheap,” Whitaker said. “They fill you up and are great when you are constantly on the go and have deadlines to meet…'”

Read the rest of the story: Breaking down Ramen noodles, literally