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Mile Bleh Club: Why Airline Food Doesn’t Taste Good


Don't blame the chef! Research shows that air pressure, background noise and more all affect how we process taste. Pete Cade/Getty Images
Don't blame the chef! Research shows that air pressure, background noise and more all affect how we process taste. Pete Cade/Getty Images

The next time your taste buds revolt at the first bite of an in-flight meal, try holding your tongue.

Not literally, of course.

Instead of grousing about airlines and the food they serve, the blame for poor-tasting fare may rest squarely in your mouth – and the way your senses respond to the noise, pressure and altitude associated with air travel.

It's a lesson Julia Buckley learned firsthand. A United Kingdom-based travel journalist and frequent transatlantic flyer, Buckley was selected by British Airways to help choose a new on-board tea. “I was one of the judges for the final stage, when it was down to three potential teas,” she says via email. “On a flight, we blind-tasted four teas at various stages of the flight. I was convinced I was selecting the same one throughout as my favorite, but actually, my choices were changing with every tasting.”

Later, Buckley learned that the tea she'd liked best on the ground had been the one that became “unbearably acidic” halfway through the flight.

“I was surprised and mortified – I think of myself as a tea connoisseur,” says Buckley, “I hadn't realized how much taste changes in the air. The two that felt overpowering on the ground were the most palatable in the air within an hour of the flight, whereas the most delicate one suddenly lost its flavor and brought the acidity to the forefront.”

It's a phenomenon researchers at Cornell University witnessed as they gauged the reactions of 48 people drinking liquids designed to mimic one of our five taste sensations: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami (also known as savory).

As participants sampled the solutions, they did so under two types of conditions. First, in silence and, second, while listening to the sound of 85-decibel jet engines. The results showed the participants' sense of salty, sour and bitter remained about the same, whether or not conditions were noisy. However, these same in-flight sounds dulled sweet tastes and enhanced umami tastes like tomato juice, which may explain why tomato juice and Bloody Mary cocktails are so popular at altitude.

“The multisensory properties of the environment where we consume our food can alter perception of the foods we eat,” says Robin Dando, assistant professor of food science at Cornell University, in a news release about the study.

And it isn't only air travel that can have an effect.

Shawnte Salabert, a Los Angeles-based senior writer for Modern Hiker, spent several weeks at 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) above sea level as she traversed the Pacific Crest Trail. “As I crept higher and higher, I noticed my appetite changed drastically,” she says. “I found my palate swing to the extremes – I craved boatloads of salt and the sugariest sweets I could find.”

These yearnings for salty and intensely sweet flavors fall right in line with the findings at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics. At Lufthansa's request, the institute set out to study passengers' perceptions of sweetness and saltiness, and discovered both dropped by up to 30 percent during arid simulated flight conditions. It's something to keep in mind the next time you fly, and opt for a promising tomato-based entrée and beverage. 


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