Why Food Tastes Bad on Airplanes
The constant humming noise, pressurized cabin, and dry air suppress our sense of smell and diminish our ability to taste.
It is no secret that airplane food tastes really bad; after eating on-board a flight for the second or third time, most of us make our peace with it. While one may initially peg the poor quality to a specific airline until they realize how just ubiquitous the experience is. And as it turns out, science has a role to play in making airline food unappetizing.
Picture a plane. The culinary experience plays out with low levels of oxygen, a constant hum, cold air, and dry nostrils. Together, they toggle with our collective senses to change how we process a taste.
For one, our sense of smell is an important element when it comes to appreciating taste — precisely why nothing tastes great when we have a cold and our sense of smell takes a beating. When the pressure lowers inside the cabin, even the level of oxygen in our bloodstream takes a hit. This, in turn, makes our olfactory receptors less sensitive than usual, diminishing our ability to smell, and by extension taste properly.
The constant din from the humming engines doesn’t help either. A 2011 study found that background noises can lower people’s ability to taste sweetness and salt in their food — as compared to eating in quiet environments. Basically, one’s favorite recipe for chicken stroganoff will probably not taste nearly the same if they’re served the dish while soaring in the skies in a tin box.
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Another reason that makes the food less palatable is the cold, dry air inside the cabin. So, on the one hand, it’s difficult to serve piping hot food on-board. Safety standards compel airlines to cook the food on the ground; then, to make the packed food last till the time it makes its way to the trays of passengers, the food must be blast-chilled and refrigerated. Once it boards the flight though, naturally, it must be re-heated — except that open flames could pose a risk, so convention ovens, which “blow hot oven air over and around the food” are used.
Here’s where the obstacle of dryness takes over. And when one says “dry” in this context, they earnestly mean it — the humidity inside an airplane is lower than what one would typically experience in a desert, of all places. So, the Catch-22 situation is this: the food needs to be re-heated to a degree that it doesn’t cool down before passing through the aisle and reaching the passengers; but at the same time, the only way to do that is to blow dry air over it in an atmosphere that’s already drier than a desert. The result is often less-than-appetizing.
“Airlines came to understand that by the time you have served 250-plus passengers, the food would either get cold or dry… The solution? Douse whatever you are serving in a fluid,” Guillaume de Syon, a professor at Albright College in Pennsylvania told Time. What is, basically, served to passengers then is chicken and beef swimming in excess sauces and gravy — alongside potatoes that are so mashed they end up being almost watery.
This appears like a cumulative conspiracy of the senses to diminish our ability to enjoy food on airplanes. Which explains why airlines may adjust recipes for dishes served on board to counter this physiological difference. “Proper seasoning is key to ensur[ing] food tastes good in the air… Often, recipes are modified with additional salt or seasoning to account for the cabin dining atmosphere,” Russ Brown, director of in-flight dining and retail at American Airlines, told BBC Future in 2015.
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While different airlines are, reportedly, trying to innovate their patrons’ dining experience, the fact remains that airplane food might never taste as great as its on-ground counterparts. This is because the prime concern around preparing food for passengers isn’t just that it must be pleasing to the tastebuds; its longevity in less than ideal conditions is critical. “Airline chefs are unique in that they mass produce recipes for thousands of customers… Many times the final product is not what was originally envisioned due to things outside their control. We design food with ingredients and packing we know can survive the long process between food preparation and delivery,” Brown explains.
However, the good news is that airplanes don’t dull every taste — spiciness and bitterness may be unfazed while umami is even enhanced.
So, here’s what Condé Nast Traveller advises people who are planning to dine on a flight, “[O]pt for bolder flavors… Favour dishes that are likely to be more spiced and seasoned, such as those from Thai and Indian cuisine. Spices such as cardamom and lemongrass are more pronounced… If you see meats paired with a sauce, pick that option, as the sauce will prevent the protein from completely drying out.”
But for many others, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s mantra holds, “There’s no f***ing way I eat on planes… I worked for airlines for ten years, so I know where this food’s been and where it goes, and how long it took before it got on board.”
Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.