Why does airplane food taste so bad?
Studies show that flying reduces our ability to detect certain flavors. However, some in-flight foods — such as curry and bloody Marys — do taste the same. Here's why.
Mon, May 19, 2014 at 12:43 PM
The bland taste of airline food is a running joke among travelers. The lack of favor is often blamed on airlines cutting corners to save money, but there may be other factors at play.
It turns out there's science behind the bad taste of food at 30,000 feet.
It's noisy up there
If you've ever used headphones during flight, then you likely had to crank the volume up higher than normal to hear over the plane's white noise.
Studies show that the level of background noise affects both the intensity of flavor and the perceived crunchiness of food.
In one study at the University of Manchester in England, 48 participants were provided salty and sweet foods to eat first while in a quiet room and then again while wearing headphones that produced noise equivalent to an airplane.
Food consumed while hearing the background noise was rated as less sweet, less salty and crunchier.
"The evidence points to this effect being down to where your attention lies — if the background noise is loud, it might draw your attention to that, away from the food," Dr. Andy Woods, a researcher on the project, told BBC.
Previous studies have shown that loud noises, such as an aircraft engine, can reduce our ability to taste flavors by up to 30 percent.
This could explain why airline meals and food provided to NASA astronauts requires such heavy seasoning.
Noise isn't the only reason food doesn't taste quite right in the air.
As part of a study by German airline Lufthansa, passengers in simulated flight conditions were given glasses of water with seven different concentrations of colorful flavorings and asked at which level they registered a taste.
Researchers concluded that the combination of air pressure and low humidity inside planes diminish people's ability to taste salty and sweet foods, while sour, bitter and spicy foods were relatively unaffected.
But it isn't just our taste buds that are affected. Lufthansa ran a similar test using scents and found our sense of smell is influenced as well.
Up to 80 percent of what we consider taste is actually our sense of smell, but in an airplane, dry cabin air evaporates nasal mucus that helps our odor receptors function.
"When you put something in your mouth, the vapors from this pass through the nasopharynx to reach the olfactory receptors high in the nose," Dr. Tom Finger, professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and co-director of the Rocky Mountain Taste and Smell Center, told NBC News.
The dry air in a plane's cabin also dries out the mouth, causing saliva to become more concentrated. This leaves a salty taste in the mouth and affects the level at which salt can be tasted in food.
I'll have a bloody Mary
Scientists recently discovered that a bloody Mary could be one of the few drinks that actually tastes as it should while flying.
While some combination of noise, air pressure and humidity reduces our ability to taste certain flavors, umami — the "fifth taste" described as "pleasantly savory" — seems to be immune to this effect.
"A key feature of tomatoes is that they are rich in umami ... perhaps all those travelers who order a bloody Mary after the seatbelt sign has been turned off have figured out intuitively what scientists are only now slowly coming to recognize empirically," the authors wrote in their paper, which was published in the journal Flavour.
What other flavors fare well at 30,000 feet? According to research, seasonings like cardamom, lemon grass and curry taste better than salt or sugar.
And if you're a tea drinker, you're in luck. British Airways recently developed a special teabag for air travel.
The Twinings tea bag is designed for water boiled at 89 degrees Celsius, instead of the 100 degrees normally necessary for making black tea, and it uses a blend of three teas suited to fast extraction at high altitude.
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