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The Many Problems With Airplane Coffee

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As air transport becomes increasingly less glamorous, passengers find themselves grateful for even the smallest in-flight comforts. Beverage service is an amenity that frequent fliers can still depend on, and the arrival of the drinks cart signals the opportunity to enjoy a cold soda or a hot cup of tea. Caffeine lovers, however, often get their hopes up for a fresh, strong sip of coffee, and are inevitably disappointed by a mediocre brew. It’s not a mass hallucination; in-flight coffee really is underwhelming. The Kitchn investigated and found out this is for a number of reasons.

The usual culprit in a case of not-so-great coffee is the beans: low-quality beans naturally lead to a low-quality beverage. While airlines might conceivably want to cut costs by stocking up on the cheap stuff, coffee culture is such a force now that most flight providers wouldn’t dare. In fact, certain airlines proudly advertise the quality of their coffee sources. Clearly, the beans aren’t to blame.

Once the coffee beans have been ruled out, the next most obvious ingredient that could be at fault is the water—the very same water that, according to a 2012 EPA report, tested positive for coliform and other harmful bacteria in 12% of test cases from commercial airline water supplies. While that might be one reason to eschew in-flight coffee altogether, bland coffee probably isn’t caused solely by coliform bacteria.

Actually, there are likely other factors at play: humidity, noise, altitude, and air pressure. Just as a dry airplane cabin can cause food to taste bland, it can do the same to coffee, which falls victim to the same desensitization of a passenger’s taste buds to sweetness and saltiness, and to the the failure of about a third of them entirely. Odor receptors don’t function as well in flight either, and a normally aromatic coffee smells—and tastes—not much better than hot brown water. Even the noise of the turbines dampens passengers’ enjoyment of their coffee break, as the 85 decibel drone interrupts a brain’s ability to identity and taste flavor compounds.

All of this spells bad news for caffeine fiends—as long as it’s 10,000 feet in the air, that cup of coffee is going to taste pretty blah. As far as alternatives go, wine is no better (perhaps even worse). Delta Airlines sommelier Andrea Robinson notes, “subtlety is not well served at altitude.” However, there may be hope yet for an in-flight treat. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and food studies, says ice cream should still taste fine, no matter how far off the ground you get. So get on it, airlines; my frequent flier miles and I will be waiting impatiently for our complimentary in-flight ice cream service.

[h/t The Kitchn]

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Broccoli Coffee Is Here
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First there were Starbucks’s unicorn frappuccinos. Then there were bone broth lattes. Could broccoli coffee be the next brewing trend?

Australia’s main scientific research agency, CSIRO, thinks it's possible. As reported by Mashable, the organization worked with research and development corporation Hort Innovation to create a nutrient-rich broccoli powder that can be added to recipes for an extra dose of protein and fiber.

Considering that two spoonfuls are equal to one serving of vegetables, the foodstuff could be beneficial to children—and adults—who recoil at the sight of leafy greens. It still tastes like broccoli, but the flavor can be masked by adding it to other foods and drinks, including coffee.

Commonfolk Coffee, a cafe in Mornington, Australia, gave it a go and whipped up a “broccolatte” for brave customers to sample. The beverage was met with some trepidation, with one customer telling local TV station 9 News, “It’s freaky. It shouldn’t be green,” and another describing it as “green milky mush.” Another said she was happy to be making her morning coffee more nutritious.

For those who think greens and caffeine simply don’t mix, CSIRO has a few other suggestions. Instead, try adding the broccoli powder to fruit-based smoothies, soups, and veggie dips (any of these recipes will do the trick). Researchers even used it to create a cheese puff snack that was apparently popular with kids.

The powder is good for you, and it’s also good for farmers, who now have a way to use up unshapely broccoli considered too ugly to sell. The heads of broccoli are dried out and crushed into a powder while retaining the taste, color, and nutrients of the vegetable. This product is part of a larger project to cut down on food waste by creating new products from unwanted produce.

Check out footage of Commonfolk's broccolatte from 9 News below.

[h/t Mashable]

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How You Act at Starbucks Might Reflect Your Ancestors' Farming Style
Greg Baker, AFP/Getty Images
Greg Baker, AFP/Getty Images

What you do in Starbucks may be linked to more than just your personal coffee preferences. As Science reports, a new study on coffee-shop behavior in different parts of China indicates that farming practices that date back generations still influence how people behave in public. It found that in regions where agriculture traditionally focused on wheat, people were much more likely to be sitting alone at coffee shops compared to people in areas where rice was the dominant crop.

The study, in Science Advances, sounds kind of crazy at first: What my great-grandfather farmed has nothing to do with how I drink my latte, surely. But the design of the study, which involved observing almost 9000 people at 256 coffee shops in six different Chinese cities, is a surprisingly clever way for scientists to observe cultural differences in the real world, researchers who weren't involved in the study told Science.

The study's authors, from the University of Chicago’s business school, Beijing Normal University, and the University of Virginia, wanted to know if the cultural differences of farming wheat and rice persisted through non-farming generations. Rice paddies require twice as much labor as a crop like wheat, as well as massive irrigation systems that would require cooperation between multiple farmers to build and operate. Thomas Talhelm, the study’s lead author, has previously proposed what he calls the "rice theory of culture." That is, the cooperation between neighbors necessary to grow rice led to an interdependent culture that is more collectivist and community-oriented, compared to cultures that grow wheat (like the U.S.), which have developed to be more focused on the individual.

What does this have to do with coffee? The researchers examined how people behave in public in northern China, a wheat-growing region, compared with southern China, a rice-growing region, as a way to examine how cultural differences that arose from agricultural practices still persist in urban life. Across local coffee shops and big chains like Starbucks, they observed that on weekdays, an average 10 percent more people in northern Chinese coffee shops were drinking their coffee alone compared to southern Chinese coffee shops. That number varied by day of the week and time of day, though the researchers didn’t explore why. (Possibly, people just don’t hang out with their friends much in the middle of a Monday morning.) On weekends, the difference was slightly smaller—5 percent—but still significant.

The difference held even when controlling for the type of coffee shop (international chain or local shop), age demographics of the area, and the percentage of workers in the city who are self-employed (and thus, more likely to do their work in a coffee shop).

To further study how regional differences affect behavior, the researchers decided to rearrange some chairs. They went to Starbucks and pushed chairs together in a way that would inconvenience people trying to walk through the cafe, then waited to see how many people would push the chairs out of their way. They found that in a sample of 700 Starbucks customers that were subjected to what they call “the chair trap,” people in wheat-growing areas were more likely to move the chairs out of their way (an individualistic move) while those in rice-growing areas were more likely to adapt themselves to the situation, squeezing their bodies through the tight space without disturbing the chair setup (a collectivist move).

"The fact that these differences appeared among mostly middle-class city people suggests that rice-wheat differences are still alive and well in modern China," the researchers write. This included in Hong Kong, which is located in a rice-growing region but is both wealthier and, due to its time as a British colony, has more Western influence than mainland Chinese cities. In general, the southern cities studied were denser and more developed than Beijing and Shenyang in the north, according to the researchers, and yet economic growth and urbanization didn't seem to make the culture more individualistic.

The researchers have proposed doing a similar study in India, a country that also features a split in wheat- and rice-growing regions. Since China's north-south split means that rice-growing and wheat-growing cities feature significantly different climates, it may be useful to see whether the difference holds in cities in India that share the same climate but have different crops.

[h/t Science]

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