The Science Behind Why Airline Food Tastes Bad

By Veronique Greenwood | March 13, 2012 10:47 am

food

Airplane food is notoriously bad. But airlines, in financial free fall over the last decade, have been trying to bring back the luxe food of early flight in business class and first class, to lure in more high-end travelers. Biology is working against them, though. As Jad Mouawad reports for the NYTimes, part of why plane food lacks subtlety is that we can’t actually taste as well when we’re at altitude:

Even before a plane takes off, the atmosphere inside the cabin dries out the nose. As the plane ascends, the change in air pressure numbs about a third of the taste buds. And as the plane reaches a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, cabin humidity levels are kept low by design, to reduce the risk of fuselage corrosion. Soon, the nose no longer knows. Taste buds are M.I.A. Cotton mouth sets in.

All of which helps explain why, for instance, a lot of tomato juice is consumed on airliners: it tastes far less acidic up in the air than it does down on the ground. It also helps explain why airlines tend to salt and spice food heavily and serve wines that are full-bodied fruit bombs. Without all that extra kick, the food would taste bland. Above the Atlantic, even a decent light Chablis would taste like lemon juice.

Astronauts also have to deal with diminished flavor on their journeys, perhaps for similar biological reasons. After NASA’s shuttle food system manager fielded copious requests for hot sauce, she began to suspect that swelling of the sinuses in zero gravity might be interfering with astronauts’ ability to smell and taste; now studies are underway to mimic the effect on Earth, by having volunteers lie with their feet elevated slightly above their heads for weeks and recording their reactions to food.

Image courtesy of dingram_kiwi / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Physics & Math
  • Kaleo

    Straw man argument. Airlines such as Korean Air and Air India serve food that is tasty.

  • http://fly.blakecrosby.com Blake

    The new Dreamliner should help alleviate this. Their cabin is pressurized to 6000′ instead of 8000′ like all other aircraft. As well, the relative humidity is increased as there are less metallic parts to corrode (being replaced by composites).

    Now all they need to work on is the texture ;)

  • http://viewsfromtheleftcoast.blogspot.com NatetheGrate

    Yeah, sure. I’d wager most airline food tastes terrible on the ground, too!

  • j dog

    i also just read that noise makes food less yummy. planes are loud.

  • http://www.jestic.co.uk Emily

    ‘having volunteers lie with their feet elevated slightly above their heads for weeks’

    That sounds like a horrific day job!

  • CJSF

    The vegan sandwich I had once on a British Airways flight was delicious. Perhaps one of the best sandwiches I have ever had. So I am either even weirder than I thought, or they hit upon the perfect blend of over-seasoning it to taste that way for altitude.

    CJSF

  • Annie

    Maybe British Airways has it figured out. The best curry I’ve ever had was on a British Airways trans-Atlantic flight. My husband and I realized we were both scraping our dishes and looking for more, it was delicious! It wasn’t that we were still hungry (the portion was a decent size), it was just wonderful!

  • Cathy

    It’s not just the food itself that is bland, it’s the unappetizing presentation. They need to take some cues from bento box designs and make the food either look attractive or at the very least have separate compartments for it.

  • http://www.theunixtips.com/ Unixite

    If this biological reason holds good that senses are numbed, then why does home made food on ground still tastes good in the flight? That should start to taste less salty and spicy. Biological reasons will certainly play some role but are not the only ones at cause here. To me it seem that to save cost they would give the catering contract to anyone that can provide them the number of items maintaining mediocre quality.

  • Ruth Freese

    Perhaps airline breakfasts taste bad because broccoli is not a breakfast food.

  • Steve D

    Am I the only person left on the planet who can actually taste FOOD, without having to slather it with spices? Everything has to have hot sauce, cajun, southwestern, BBQ sauce, curry, etc. I’d rather have a can of Dinty Moore beef stew than the “gourmet” crap airlines try to serve up.

  • LQ

    I’m so skeptical about this research. I’ve read it before, but then why is it that the food on EVA and JAL tastes perfectly fine? I’m willing to accept that there’s a moderate effect, but I really don’t think it is “why airline food tastes bad.” Could it just be that cheap, bland, greasy food tastes cheap, bland, and greasy? I think that’s basically the problem.

  • Saphira

    I think it’s just American airline food that tastes bad. Virgin Atlantic, on flights out of the UK, always serves great food, especially the curry. Coming from the US, it’s not nearly as good. And since others here say a variety of international airlines don’t have this problem, well…apparently it’s just the air pressure coming from the US that’s the problem? Seems the science needs further testing, at the very least.

  • Kyle

    I agree that it might be more of an issue with the American airlines. British Airways rarely disappoints, as people have said, and after living in Russia and using Aeroflot (who still gives out full meals on domestic flights), my opinion toward international airline food was made positive once again.

  • Plane Guy

    The research is dead on and true. I have traveled over 100 times in International First and Business and equally as many in coach. You really do lose the taste. If you read everyone’s posts, they love the curry. Of course they do, its SPICY. The spice masks the loss of flavor in the air.

    Another major problem is the steam ovens. They need to use these on the planes but they are very hard on a plane. You can’t cook salmon in filo dough (served in business) in a steam oven very well.

    It has nothing, absolutely nothing to do which way across the Atlantic. That comment was absurd. It has to do with the companies that cook the food. For example, you can get an incredible meal on United in Business or First out of Dulles, and then a crappy meal out of London Heathrow, or vice versa. Sometimes the airlines get a mediocre caterer that simply doesn’t follow the plan, cook to the exact specifications, or order the best ingredients.

    Also, one of the main problems is the types of food served. Serving steak and chicken is a huge mistake. I’ve had tender steak and chicken, especially on Continental (you could cut it with your fork it was so tender) but usually the meats are like hockey pucks. Remember they are often prepared almost 18 hours or more before you eat them. The types of foods that should be served are chilled foods like chilled shrimp, or a hot bowl of soup (again only served in First). People are right, a lot of the food is junk, but you really do have to spice it up and use bolder wines in order to get that 20% taste loss back. If you bring a California Pizza Kitchen BBQ chicken pizza on the plane with Cilantro, and eat it thirty minutes later, it will be delicious at altitude because the herbs havent had time to die or lose their taste, and the flavors haven’t all washed together.

    Airlines are not flying restaurants. They are to get you from point A to point B. They food can be wonderful if you are willing to pay a premium. People in coach don’t deserve the meals anyway. They are paying crap for their airfares. (except in prime summer). If you don’t like the airline food, bring your own, and everyone will be happy.

    I love it when I get off a short flight and hear people bitching about the snacks. Wait a minute? They were genuine Frito Lays chips, Pepridge Farms chocolate cookies, and other name brand treats that you buy in your local store. Still, you can’t make people happy all the time.

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