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I’ve recently gotten to taste a lot of airplane food – from the Dutch treats in KLM Economy and Business to Delta’s transatlantic BusinessElite fare, which got me thinking about why food tastes the way it does up in the air. So I had TPG contributor Katharine Gammon, a science writer for publications including WIRED, Popular Science and Los Angeles Magazine, explore the science behind airplane food and why everything tastes different at 30,000 feet.
When I think of in-flight meals, three things come to mind: rubber omelet-like substances, mushy pasta and tasteless chicken. Like many travelers, I’d rather swill some single-serve red wine and pop some peanuts instead of paying for an over-priced bowl of “noodles.”
But the airlines aren’t entirely to blame. As it turns out, human taste buds act differently in the air than on the ground.
“It has to do with the altitude – the lack of oxygen or the depressed oxygen levels, the shortage that makes people not able to taste the food,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “So some of it is drying of the air and some of it is differences in taste perception.”
At low elevations, the 10,000 or so taste buds in the human mouth work fairly normally, translating chemical signals into electrical signals and sending them to the brain. They work in conjunction with the sense of smell to parse different flavors, from sour to umami.
But here’s the rub: a plane’s artificial atmosphere is equivalent to being in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at 7,000 feet above sea level. The altitude, combined with low humidity, puts the taste buds on the fritz. Scientists estimate that smell and taste decrease about 20-30% on planes.
Food tends to taste blander in this environment, which is why airlines choose wines that are big and fruity – and why heavily spiced dishes may work the best.
“When they make food for use in airplanes, it has to be tested on airplanes, which is a challenge,” says Nestle.
Her best in-flight meal? “I was on a flight in Europe, and they served Indian food with a lot of Indian spices like cinnamon and cardamom and it was delicious. I was amazed and surprised,” she says, adding that ice cream is also something she finds tastes as good in the air as on the ground.
Airlines put the word out to scientists to solve the inflight-food puzzle. German airline Lufthansa hired researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics to figure out why tomato juice was one of their most popular drinks with passengers.
In June 2011, the results came in: people’s perceptions of food while they were in the air were similar to what they’d perceive if they’d had a cold. This may explain passengers’ desire for 1.7 million liters of tomato juice per year – the extra acidity and saltiness that would normally seem like overkill tastes good to our partially numbed taste buds.
“Tomato juice was rated far worse under normal pressure than under low pressure. It was described as earthy and musty,” researcher Andrea Burdack-Freitag explained in a June 2011 statement. But once in the air, it got rave reviews: “pleasant fruity smells and sweet, cooling taste impressions came to the fore.”
Airlines are also reaching out to high-end celebrity chefs to prepare fresher, tastier food for business and first class. LA-based chef Suzanne Goin is working with Singapore Airlines, French superstar chef Joel Robuchon is working with Air France, and Michael Chiarello is working with Delta.
Of course, menus used to include tasty tidbits like lobster even for steerage – er, coach – passengers before deregulation and cutbacks led to the current state of affairs. You can peruse retro menus from the 1960s and 1970s from Northwestern University’s Transportation Library.
For more current offerings, the website AirlineMeals has cataloged 26,000 photos of inflight food – the good, the bad, and the omlet-y — from 600 airlines worldwide.
And for passengers unsure of what to eat on a plane, NYU professor Nestle has a tip: “Bring your own food.”
What about you? Have you ever had a great in-flight meal? What’s the worst experience you’ve had? Comment below!