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Friday, August 2, 2013

One reason airline food is so bad? Your own tastebuds

One reason airline food is so bad? Your own tastebuds

Jordan Gaines

When’s the last time you enjoyed your in-flight meal? Your answer is probably “never.” And with the first weekend in August being one of the busiest times of year to fly, flight attendants are likely bracing themselves for a new onslaught of complaints about flavorless airline grub.

But is in-flight food really so bad, or is our perception of it just a little off? As it turns out, there’s a scientific reason why food is less savory at 30,000 feet.

Even before takeoff, cabin humidity decreases to about 12 percent. Once at altitude, the combination of the dry air and pressure change reduces our taste bud sensitivity. In fact, our perception of saltiness and sweetness drops by around 30 percent at high altitude, according to a 2010 study by the German airline Lufthansa. If you ate airline food at sea level, you might be surprised by how liberally the chefs have actually spiced it.

But high altitudes’ impact on our taste buds is just part of the bland in-flight food story. Another puzzle piece has to do with the fact that “flavor” is, in fact, a combination of both taste and smell.

“When you put something in your mouth, the vapors from this pass through the nasopharynx to reach the olfactory receptors high in the nose,” explains Dr. Tom Finger, professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and co-director of the Rocky Mountain Taste and Smell Center.

In addition to reduced taste bud sensitivity, cabin pressurization causes our mucus membranes to swell, blocking this pathway (remember the last stuffy nose you had and how difficult it was to enjoy your chicken noodle soup?). Cabin pressure also decreases the volatility of odor molecules, or their ability to vaporize and enter the nose.

Dry air doesn’t help our sense of smell, either. Typically, odorants are transported to olfactory receptors in the nose via the mucus lining. When the nasal cavity is dried out, the efficiency at which odorants are detected by the brain is reduced. When you “lose the olfactory component,” explains Finger, “you lose much of the flavor component of food.”

Interestingly, a 2011 study published in the journal “Food Quality and Preference” suggests an alternative hypothesis behind the blandness of airplane food: the loud, constant hum of the aircraft engine.

During the experiment, 48 participants listened to either silence or white noise with headphones while snacking on sweet and salty foods. They were asked to rate the intensity of the flavors and several other characteristics.

With background noise, food was rated as less salty and less sweet than in silence. White noise, however, increased the perceived crunchiness. Andy Woods and colleagues at the University of Manchester posit that noise distracts eaters, making it difficult to concentrate on the taste and properties of their food.

Is there a way to combat all of these sensory changes and actually enjoy some munchies while miles in the air? Not really, although some airlines are working to create morepalatable in-flight products, such as British Airways’ new teabag specifically developed for use at 35,000 feet.

Just go in prepared with the knowledge that your food might not be so delicious for a couple hours. Or bring your own food like the majority of travelers are doing these days. But no matter how you prefer to snack on-board -- and no matter how delicious the snack -- it’ll probably still taste a bit like cardboard.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The App That Knows Your Food Likes Better Than You Do

The App That Knows Your Food Likes Better Than You Do

By Adam Tanner
Two weeks ago I arrived late in the day in Singapore after a long flight. I had not done much research about restaurants in town, so I dropped off my bags and wandered to Club Street, a hilly lane of restored traditional shop houses in Chinatown. Lively, attractive restaurants lined the street. I randomly picked one place. It was pretty good as well as expensive, as are many things in super modern Singapore. But I left feeling I might have done better with a little more planning.
I thought about that meal after I learned about Nara Logics, a company that promises to find restaurants that you love anywhere, based on your own preferences. The site calls itself a “personal discovery engine,” which means it painlessly leads you to restaurants based on the data you have entered into the site.

There plenty of apps to help you find a place to eat: Foursquare, OpenTable, UrbanSpoon, Yelp. Nara claims it uses a new type of neural-network algorithm to do the job better, using more sensitive analysis of your (and everyone’s) picks and pans. To date it has made its money through revenue-sharing deals with OpenTable , Uber and GrubHub. The service is opt-in only and Nara says it does not share any data about its end users. The company started in 2010 and last year raised $7 million from angel investors.
On Tuesday, the Cambridge, Mass. company announced a deal to license its technology to Asia’s leading telecommunications group,SingTel . The deal, the first of its kind for Nara, marks the latest step in greater personalization of the Internet. It also raises questions about how companies will use the ever greater amount of personal data they are learning about us.
SingTel is not disclosing details about how it will use Nara’s recommendation engine, saying only that it will deploy first in Malaysia, then Australia and Singapore, for restaurant recommendations. But Nara is planning to move beyond dining into financial services and other commerce categories and sees SingTel as a way to do that. SingTel has made a greater effort to buy and license apps for its 468 million mobile customers than typical U.S. wireless carriers. It even bought a mobile advertising business last year.
As more people enter their likes and dislikes in Nara’s engine, the overall data network will improve in its sensitivity. “An important component of Nara’s engine is its ability to learn from all of its users across the platform,” Nara CEO and founder Thomas Copeman said. “Eventually, all users across all businesses that are powered by Nara can improve our knowledge about both user tastes and preferences and related venues and entities.”
As its sophistication grows, the service should be able to recognize national differences in taste. For example, it would steer Brits and residents of its former colonies toward restaurants that doled out the Marmite while sparing Americans the unpleasant sensation of eating it for the first time. “Over time, we believe that this could be an incredible hyper-local value-add to SingTelGroup’s half a billion mobile customers,” said Loo Cheng Chuan, head of SingTel’s Digital Life.

But blending services into one huge personal profile may not go down well with those who don’t like being data-profiled as they move around Asia and across multiple apps. Nara sees itself more as part of the solution, not the problem. “Nara provides a ‘privacy silo’ where the system can work and transact on the behalf of the user,” Copeman said. “We almost imagine it as a personal anonymizing avatar that acts on your behalf to gather information and act with the internet, which is especially crucial given the growing number of services who are dedicated to linking your transactions to your identity.”

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Wendy's to sell restaurants

Wendy's tops expectations; to sell restaurants

Wendy's reported a quarterly profit above Wall Street expectations and said it's selling 425 of its restaurants to franchisees, a move that's expected to help boost its profit margins. The move isn't unusual; fast-food companies often own only a small percentage of their restaurants. This helps keep their operating costs in check and gives them a more stable stream of income that's tilted toward royalty fees and rent, rather sales at restaurants. 

Wendy's, based in Dublin, Ohio, also raised its dividend by 25 percent to 5 cents per share. Its stock was up 10 percent at $7.32. CEO Emil Brolick said that the sale of the restaurants will also help expand adoption of the company's new restaurant designs. That's because Wendy's plans to sell the restaurants to "well-capitalized" franchisees willing to pay for the remodeling.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

New York pastrami: America's best regional food?

Sarah Green,

If you've ever visited New York, or are lucky enough to live here, you know that there is no city more deserving of the name "the city that never sleeps." With thousands of restaurants and delis open around the clock, there is certainly no shortage of good food, and perhaps the most iconic is pastrami.
Pastrami has a strong presence in New York, one that can be traced back to the Romanian Jews who immigrated here in 1872, bringing the traditions of their homeland with them. Once in America they found beef to be more affordable than pastrami typically made from goose breast, and soon adapted their recipe.
Today you see pastrami from all different cuts of beef in different parts of the country, but the most popular is the belly, and brisket in particular. It takes bringing, numerous spices (including a lot of pepper), smoking, and finally steaming to make this typically tough piece of meat worth the wait, and New Yorkers stand in line for a good pastrami sandwich day in and day out.
Seek out a traditional institution like Katz's Delicatessen on Houston St. and you'll find heaping sandwiches, perfectly prepared, of pastrami on rye. The recently reopened 2nd Ave Deli at 162 East 33rd Street has garnered much acclaim, and for good reason: it takes two hands to hold its pastrami sandwich. Blooms Deli, in the heart of the city on Lexington Avenue, is one of the few places to enjoy a pastrami sandwich on gluten-free bread.
Each place has a committed following of customers who keep coming back for more. While anything can be put between two slices of bread and called a sandwich, it's the ingredients that count, and these delis offer some of the very best.
Are you a fan of New York pastrami? Vote for it at, as your favorite iconic American food in the 10Best Readers' Choice Awards contest.