“Do you like Old Bay peanuts?” I texted my brother.
I was at the Baltimore Washington International Airport. It was urgent; I needed to know whether I should buy a can or two of peanuts flavored with Old Bay, the seafood seasoning that’s become part of Maryland’s identity. Prior to that moment, I have never bought any kind of peanut product save for peanut butter. I like them fine, but I’ve never needed them — until now.
Minutes earlier I walked by a Hudson News, thinking, “Who buys this stuff?” It was so on the nose, all this loud Maryland paraphernalia displayed in the window display. I’m from here, so I do get nostalgic for Maryland food — steamed blue crabs, Utz potato chips, peaches and silver queen corn.
Old Bay peanuts are bits of home I can take with me for $14.99, which is cheaper than a flight. Though I had no room to spare in my carry-on, I bought two cans. I’d bring one to my brother’s barbecue next week with his Maryland friends, hence the text. This explanation of my behavior is somewhat nuanced, deeply tied to my sense of home, and as such, my sense of identity.
This is also B.S. The real reason I bought them: I was at the airport.
Outside of the airport, I’m a particular eater. Insufferable, actually. I shop at farmer’s markets and make my own coconut milk from Thai coconuts I buy from an importer. I don’t have an addictive personality. It takes me three bites to eat one Hershey Kiss and I can stop at any time. But in a fluorescent-lit terminal, I become a different person: a junk food vampire. I crave food I never want elsewhere — a Starbucks pumpkin scone, Five Guys cheeseburgers and fries, Cinnabon. Some of these things I typically find downright disgusting. But put me between a TSA checkpoint and a tarmac, and I’ll buy and inhale any of the above, even on a full stomach.
I’m not the only one. When I brought up my airport cravings with fellow travel writers, I was flooded with responses (and validation). Adrienne So Sheehan only drinks soda in airports and also partakes of the pre-flight Cinnabon. Giulia Pines recently bought a pound of candy at Dylan’s Candy Bar at John F. Kennedy International Airport, then threw most of it away without eating it. Nneka M. Okona wrote, “Always gotta get Chex Mix and the largest Smart Water they have before boarding. I never eat Chex Mix otherwise.” Kate Morgan, who used to live in Rome, once bought an entire wheel of cheddar cheese (a foot-and-a-half in diameter) on a seven-hour layover in Heathrow.
We are all normal. The airport is designed to make you crumble.
“There’s science behind this,” said consumer behavior expert Jane Boyd Thomas in a phone interview. We shop for a specific need (whether that’s food to fulfill hunger, or earphones to listen to music), and we shop for experiential reasons.
“Once you go through TSA and you’re at your gate, you’re in a very specific type of mall and you’re held captive. You’re anxious and restless and very, very bored,” Boyd Thomas said. When this happens, we let down our guard and seek out something different to mitigate the feelings. “Trashy novels, things we usually wouldn’t read — it’s cheap thrill escapism. We rationalize this: the calories don’t count, it’s a treat,” she said. These random shopping expeditions are acceptable only in the airport, when we’re feeling stuck. It’s why they rarely happen on, say, your daily commute to work, Boyd Thomas said.
This is all definitely true for some people, but that’s not quite what happens to me. As a travel writer, I fly a lot, so going ham at Hudson News isn’t necessarily a treat, and I’m fully aware that I’m trapped some place where most options are overpriced crap. I often prep ahead, packing healthy snacks and some kind of exciting sweet, and this can sometimes help restrain my impulses. But not always.
This is where the science of sleep comes into play.
“When I travel, I’m sleep-deprived. You pack at 1 a.m. and wake up at 4 a.m. for a 6 a.m. flight,” Thorsten Kahnt, a neuroscientist who studies the effects of sleep deprivation on smell at Northwestern University said in a phone interview. “There’s a clear link between sleep deprivation and altered food intake. People crave food dense in calories and high in sugar. That’s pretty well-established,” he continued.
Sure, but why? Because smell. “We find that with sleep deprivation there’s a stronger response in the brain area that codes for sensory properties of odors,” Kahnt said. In other words, the more tired we are, the more vulnerable we are to the scent of Auntie Anne’s cinnamon pretzels.
That’s what’s going on inside of us. But at airports, which are increasingly being developed and renovated into destination shopping malls, there’s a lot embedded within the architecture and design.
“There’s a minimal response effort,” said behavioral psychologist Jon Roos in a phone interview. “Usually we need to go into cars, park, open a door to get some of these things. It’s a lot of choices in a small space, and often, no doors. We see all the food right in front of us.” In other words, there is literally zero barrier to entry to purchasing a sticky sweet pastry.
And, even in Baltimore, or Charlotte, North Carolina, or St. Paul, Minnesota, there’s an exotic factor. “There are things you only see at the airport. You may not love those particular peanuts, but you don’t always have access,” Roos added.
Then there’s repetition, which Roos and Joanna Zionni, another behavioral therapist, mentioned. “We can learn to enjoy things with repeated exposure and we can have associations about food. That association could be being at the airport. So maybe munching on Chex Mix [that one typically finds disgusting] at the airport makes you feel cozy and safe and internally symbolizes ‘traveling,’” Zioni wrote in an email.
So if your airport junk food habit really bothers you, go to bed a little earlier. Or, the next time you find yourself inexplicably marching toward the food court before a flight, know that even the most experienced travelers and behavioral scientists out there may also have icing all over their fingers.
Correction: Oct. 12, 2017
A previous version of this article included an incorrect link to the Twitter account of Kate Morgan. She is @bykatemorgan on Twitter.