Generally, airplane food is lousy. Although better in business and first class, it still suffers.
Perhaps some of the way food and drink tastes high in the sky has to do with the altitude. When we’re cruising along thousands of feet above the earth, whatever we ingest gets altered, twisted, and becomes bland. At those heights taste buds and sense of smell are the first things to go and as taste is all about the nose and palate working in harmony, it’s problematic. Lower air pressure, lack of humidity, and background noise are largely to blame.
Lower air pressure in the cabin causes liquids to expand and contract, affecting their taste. Wines that are fruity and forward on the ground suddenly come across tannic (for reds), thin, and acidic. Our perception of saltiness, sweetness and fruitiness takes a big hit too, affecting many dishes. Interestingly, research has found that other components like spice, sourness and bitterness are basically unaffected.
The lack of humidity in aircraft is atrocious. Humidity is often less than 12 per cent. This causes our nasal passages to dry out and not function properly. Since most of what we taste comes from the sense of smell, this makes anything we ingest taste very bland. Surprisingly, “umami,” the savoury or rich taste imparted by some foods like tomatoes, mushrooms, and certain wines like Italian reds, is unaffected.
Although we get somewhat used to the constant hum of jet engines on a plane, it still affects what we eat and drink. The mere vibration alone is a subtle deterrent – like sitting in a vibrating chair and dining! Psychologists have found that our ears can also play a part in our perception, making food and drink taste less salty and sweet, but the component of spiciness is enhanced.
An important point that affects airplane food, especially in economy, is the fact that all meals are mass-produced. It’s really hard to create meals with tons of flavor for hundreds and hundreds of people. Ask any chef who has transitioned from cooking for a small group to a mass audience.
So how can you make the most out of food and drink when flying? You could simply fly business or first class where the audience is smaller and the quality and attention to detail better. For most of us, though, this is not an option so we’re stuck with economy travel.
For food, try choosing dishes that have a lot of seasonings, spice and vibrant flavors if they’re available. Foods with pepper, curry, cardamom and lemongrass are great. Choose savoury dishes that have more umami, like tomato-based options, or those with mushrooms, soy sauce or spinach. Add more salt and pepper to your dish than you normally would on the ground. Many airlines are already experimenting with ideas including heavier cutlery to make the dining experience better in the air.
For drinks, try ordering wine earlier in the flight, before your nasal passages dry out to the point where they just don’t work properly. Tomato-based drinks like a Bloody Mary will taste better in the air because of the savoury character and umami component of tomatoes. If airlines could do away with plastic cups, I believe all drinks on a plane would be improved as well.
Finally, if you have a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that will eliminate jet engine hum, then use them. Your dining and drinking experience should be that much better.