Does Airline Food Have To Taste Terrible?

by on September 18, 2013 · 17 comments

in TPG Contributors

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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.”

Whatever's being delivered isn't likely to taste great.

Whatever’s being delivered isn’t likely to taste great.

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.

Even meals aboard Air France are uninspired.

Even meals aboard Air France are uninspired.

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.

Airlines have tried upping their offerings by bringing in celebrity chefs - like Singapore has with luminaries like Suzanne Goin.

Airlines have tried upping their offerings by bringing in celebrity chefs – like Singapore has with luminaries like Suzanne Goin.

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!

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Jerry

    i was wondering how much a meal costs per passenger

    as airliners are using yield management for optimizing revenue, when the price goes up, they can probably allocate a few more bucks to the meal to offer a much better experience

  • Laurel

    Heston Blumenthal’s Mission Impossible tried to tackle the same problem with meal service on British Airways. The Channel 4 episode was very informative and will not hesitate to use a nasal spray before my inflight meal.

  • Mitch B
  • Ben Price

    A tip I’ve learned over the years: bring mini-Tabasco’s (they sell them four in a bundle at World Market) on board. It’ll add just the amount of kick to make anything in-air taste better.

  • UrbanPhoenixInjunCAM

    But the food is incredible in Santa Fe New Mexico!!

  • Pingback: Have You Ever Had Airline Food You Liked? | Without Bacon()

  • Moon

    A cup of instant noodles tasted the BEST on a plane.

  • NguyenVanFalk

    the best, nay, only good thing about transiting ORD… rick bayliss’ tortas frontera. a must any time i’m there.

  • Mike

    I live at 9600ft. My food tastes fine, but food on a plane still tastes like crap. I think blaming it on altitude is a lie perpetuated by the airline industry.

  • Simon

    i am left wondering a few things after reading this… 1. outside of international flights and domestic business and forst does this really apply to the masses? The sandwiches and snack boxes sold in coach are more reliable. Are celebrity chefs looking into that too? that might require Guy Fieri to ditch his diners, drive ins, and dives convertible! 2. Taste is one thing, but health value is another. Outside of Qantas I havent really seen an airline balance the two. While the pasta might be predictable on some carriers and be seen as a safe option, your arteries will hate ye in thelong run. also let us not kid outselves…the salads that accompany meals are no better than that bag of leaves you bought at the market two weeks ago. 3. To contradict myself slightly the brekky on AA 242 from ORD to DUS two days ago wasnt half bad. Fruit was fresh, omelette wasnt a ball of grease, and someone somewhere taught AA finally what a croissant should be like.

  • Pieter

    Worst inflight meal ever served were on Olympic air, flying from Athens to Johannesburg in 2004. Some suspicions fish, because they ran out of beef. I always wonder why they load fish. I’m sure a bigger percentage flyers eats beef and chicken, or they should ask who wants fish and hand them their meal first. I also heard that South African airways now serves on their JNB-CPT route Beef Sausage and Porridge (pap), I bet you those Capetonians just love that LOL.

  • Guest

    A few weeks ago I had a beef tenderloin steak on EWR-SFO that was amazing. I was shocked how good it ways and mentioned it to the crew.

  • Sean

    A few weeks ago I had a beef tenderloin steak on EWR-SFO that was amazing. I was shocked how good it was so I mentioned it to the crew.

  • Rachel

    This is why I love Austrian. They have an onboard chef so he’s actually tasting the food in the air. On our honeymoon last year, the meal we had on our flight was just as good, if not better, than some of the ones we had on the ground in Greece.

  • David M

    Airline food can taste wonderful! Had some great vegetarian meals on Jet Airways. And these are great on a plane or not!!!!

  • Flyer Fun

    Continental uses to have good food in business. And the cashews were great. However, the same food in United does not taste so good. Just my two cents

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