The Science Behind an Airplane Meal’s Lackluster Flavor

airplane food

Don’t blame the airplane food — it’s your senses (or lack thereof) that make it taste so bland. (Photo credit: Alex Segre/Alamy)

Airline meals have long been maligned for their bland flavor and strange textures. It turns out that at least some of the blame lies in an airline passengers sense of taste. Scientific research indicates that at cruising altitude (around 35,000 feet), airline passengers lose 20-30 percent of their sense of taste. So what might taste perfectly seasoned and flavorful on the ground tastes completely different at altitude. What accounts for this loss of taste?

During the Golden Age of passenger airline travel following World War II, meals were a big deal on flights and were often multi-course affairs. Unlike today, however, back then airplanes flew at lower altitudes and their cabins weren’t pressurized. The lack of pressurization meant that passengers senses weren’t dulled, and the flavor of their meals remained quite tantalizing.

In today’s modern age of flight, larger airplanes usually cruise at an altitude of around 35,000 feet, which requires pressurizing the plane’s cabin. Most airplane cabins are pressurized, however, so that passengers only feel like they are at an altitude of about 6,000 to 8,000 feet (just over a mile above ground level). As the cabin is pressurized, a passenger’s taste buds go numb and the sense of smell is also weakened. These changes in perception occur because oxygen saturation in the blood is lowered, which reduces the effectiveness of odor and taste receptors. The airplane cabins reduced humidity also affects a passenger’s sense of smell by drying out nasal mucous membranes. Since nearly 80 percent of a person’s sense of taste relies upon the sense of smell, most people often perceive the food and drink they consume on an airplane as being less tasty, similar to how they’d would perceive it if they had a cold.

Scientists at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics recently investigated taste perception under pressurized conditions on behalf of Lufthansa airlines. Rather than taking to the air, researchers instead used Fraunhofer IBP’s unique flight test facility. This facility consists of a 16-meter long section of an Airbus A310-200 aircraft that is suspended within a low-pressure chamber. The aircraft is authentically furnished, so that test subjects feel as if they are inside a real plane. In addition to air pressure, investigators are also able to monitor and alter such things as the planes external cabin wall temperature, relative humidity, noise level, vibration, light, and air circulation. Research using the modified airplane cabin found that saltiness is perceived to be between 20-30 percent less intense and food tastes 15 to 20 percent less sweet at altitude.

These changes in taste perception help to explain one particular airplane food phenomenon the overwhelming popularity of tomato juice among airline passengers. “At normal pressure, people give tomato juice a much lower [taste] rating, typically describing it as musty,” IBP researcher Andrea Burdack-Freitag explained to Fraunhofer research magazine. At lower pressure, however, tomato juice tastes completely different it is perceived as having a fruity aroma and a sweet flavor.

Additional research indicates that the white noise of a plane such as the loud hum of the engine also affects a passenger’s taste perception. Scientists at the University of Manchester investigated how background noise affects a person’s perception of food. They determined that specific sounds influenced not only a person’s sense of saltiness or sweetness, but also affected how crunchy some types of foods sounded; this perception affected the eaters perceptions of freshness and edibleness.

“We’ve compared how people rated food that they ate while they sat in headphones listening to various kinds of sounds and we’ve speculated as to why this might explain why airline food has a reputation for not being very tasty,” researcher Dr. Ellen Poliakoff told a reporter from The Independent.

In the study, the scientists asked participants to rate the flavor of different food items while wearing headphone that played quiet, loud, or no background noise. Under noisy conditions, foods were rated less sweet and salty, but more crunchy, than those foods consumed under quieter conditions.

Though price and schedule are typically the main deciding factors for most consumers when choosing which airline to fly on, the food is still a draw for some. Particularly for those flying first or business class, or for those on any long flight, where hot meals are the rule and not the exception, the quality of an airlines food is of great concern. And, as exhibited by Lufthansa, airlines are interested in taking that extra step such as improving their culinary offerings and consulting celebrity chefs to draw more customers to fill their seats.

More to Explore
Beyond Mile-High Grub: Can Airline Food Be Tasty?
The Science Behind Why Airline Food Tastes Bad

 

This article was originally published on BioZine in June 2014.

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