Dining and Decibels

 image via Synergy Consultants

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A widely circulated study reported in this month’s journal Food Quality and Preference concluded that background noise affects the taste of food. We didn’t need a study to tell us.

Drink a glass of wine in a crowded, noisy bar.
Now sit down in a quiet dining room and have another glass. They are two entirely different experiences.

The study found that loud ambient noise makes flavors lose their intensity. Sweet foods taste less sweet and salty foods taste less salty. The researchers attribute this to the distraction—the noise seems to overwhelm the senses, drowning out the taste of food in the same way as it drowns out conversation.

Bring in ‘da noise

Nothing says fun like clattering dishes, chattering diners, and a pounding bass line. Some restaurateurs will cultivate the noise level to signify that the place has a buzz; it’s busy and lively and happening. Sedate and quiet feels empty. Raucous draws in customers who will want to be there because so many other people feel the same way.

The up-sell of sound

Louder and faster music makes us eat and drink faster. One study found that when music is played at 72 decibels (equivalent to the background noise of a vacuum cleaner), people drink at a rate of one glass of beer or wine per 14.5 minutes. Crank the music up to 88 decibels (equivalent to the noise of busy street traffic) and 4 minutes is shaved off the time it takes to finish a drink. And they’re not just drinking faster to flee the ruckus; consumption increases from 2.6 to 3.4 drinks in the same period of time.

We also chew faster when the music is fast and loud, accelerating from 3.83 bites a minute to 4.4 bites a minute. Of course it’s difficult to talk over the volume, so there tends to be less conversation to slow us down, but it seems that the ambient energy works to energize us. Some restaurants, like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Grill, have pre-programmed their sound systems to raise the tempo and volume of music at peak times, when people are waiting and they want to turn tables quicker.

Sound check

Loud background noise is stressful. It changes your heart rate, elevates blood pressure and increases breathing rates. The fallout can linger long after you’ve left a restaurant, intensifying the effects of alcohol and interfering with sleep. And audiologists agree that regular exposure to sound levels above 90 decibels—typical of a bustling bar/restaurant, which can hit brief peaks as high as 140 db—leads to permanent hearing loss.

When Zagat asked its survey respondents “What irritates you most about dining out?” restaurant noise ranked second, just after poor service—that’s more dissatisfaction than reported for food, prices, or any other aspect of ambiance. Restaurant reviewers from publications like the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle now routinely carry sound meters into restaurants, and report decibels along with the stars.

Next time, I’ll have the steak frites and a side of earplugs, please.

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2 Responses to Dining and Decibels

  1. Janice says:

    And if we aren’t tasting sweet and salty are we adding more sugar and salt?

  2. G Martin says:

    That is a very interesting post.

    I hate eating in restaurants that are so noisy that I have to shout at the people at my table just to be heard. It also makes sense however that restaurants would do this because they make money by volume. They want to turn their tables as fast as they can and they probably hate it when people linger over dessert.

    I can’t help but wonder if this phenomenon could also be contributing to the obesity epidemic? People eat out more frequently than they used to, and if all this noise is effecting their digestive systems it could be making their bodies store more fat.

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Is it appropriate conversation for the dinner table? Then it should be fine.

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