Dining experiences on planes aren’t renowned for their quality. The meal served by the air host/hostess may taste bland and dry, but studies have found it has nothing to do with the food or the cooking. Actually, it is all about atmosphere and science – and it’s all about you.
A study from The Fraunhofer Institute (a research institute based in Germany) found that the cabin atmosphere, which is pressurized at 8,000 feet, numbed the taste buds. The cool, dry environment causes the meal to be the equivalent of eating food while having a cold. Our perception of saltiness and sweetness, which are vital aspects of the tasting experience, drop by approximately 30% at high altitudes. Meanwhile, the cabin pressure dulls the sensors in the nose that affect taste.
Another study (this time from Cornell University) found that the noisy environment inside an airplane alters the taste of food. A group of almost fifty people were provided with a variety food to enjoy in a silent setting. They were tested again, this time wearing headsets blasting 85 decibels of noise as a substitute for roaring jet engines on a plane. The tests showed that the noise dulled the sweetness of food, while it intensified the savory aspects. Either way, the tasting sense is compromised. The environment we eat in alters our taste perception. Hearing plays an important role right alongside smell and taste.
When reaching soaring heights in a plane, the humidity equals that of a desert (at less than 12%). This dry environment isn’t exactly an ideal dining condition. It explains why a passenger desires that next cup of water or juice after a meal, but also frustrates us as drink servings are much smaller than their on-land counterparts. Taste buds are less effective when they’re dried out.
Interestingly enough, not all aspects of taste are relinquished when you board the plane and reach 30,000 feet. Sour, bitter, and spicy flavors are basically unaffected. So, when given the choice between a spicy dish and a sweet dish, one should always choose the former if desiring a flavorsome experience during your flight. Airlines are aware of the altered taste buds, so they will add more salt and sugar to products to enhance their flavor. Anyone focused on health will want to be aware of these additions.
While science has explained why plane food tastes so bad, it is also served in trying conditions. It is cooked on the ground, packed, blast-chilled, refrigerated, and heated using a convection oven (dry air is blown all over the food, substituting for a microwave). However, through the study of the science behind taste, airlines are starting to adapt to the conditions and take advantage of the flavors that are enhanced in the air.
What is being done? Science.
- Singapore has a simulated flight cabin to test the taste of their in-flight food options.
- Umami, the fifth taste (behind savory, sweet, sour, and bitter) that few know much about, is unaffected by altitude. For example, soy sauce and tomatoes will be utilized more prominently in flights to improve the dining experience.
- British Airways developed a nasal spray used to clear the nose prior to food consumption. However, it wasn’t popular with passengers.
- Noise-cancelling headphones are becoming a key tool in altering the perceived environment, blocking out the engine hum. They will also utilize music that improves the taste of certain foods.
- Some airlines are removing plastic cutlery in the belief that it projects a bad food taste before the passenger brings the meal to their mouth.
- Quality wine taste is also compromised when hitting high levels of altitude, as liquids expand and contract in such conditions. Low-acid levels are the key, which rules out an in-flight champagne.
With these experiments and potential solutions, it is clear that airlines are doing all they can to research and discover ways to improve the in-flight dining experience. When faced with a lengthy flight, one can either sacrifice their sweet or acidic favorites for a umami option, or deal with the rebellious taste buds dried out in the pressurized environment. Maybe everyone should just fly when they have a cold?