The reason why food tastes different during flight

Devouring an in-flight meal is known to be far less pleasing than dining on the ground. However, poor execution of airline chefs is not to blame, but rather our own taste buds that do not pick up on the same flavors while in the air. It is evident that the lack of humidity, low air pressure, and background noise are aspects that affect how foods taste different during flight. 

The human taste buds are the first to become feeble at 30,000 feet. According to Russ Brown, the director of In-Flight Dining at American Airlines, “Flavor is a combination of both [the sense of smell and taste], and our perception of saltiness and sweetness drop when in a pressurized cabin.” While at cruising level (30,000 feet) the humidity inside a plane can get to be as low as 12%, which is drier than most deserts. One’s sensitivity of salty and sweet flavors is reduced by 30% due to the combination of dryness and low pressure in the cabin. Much of the ability of taste sensibility is directly linked to smelling sensibility, and the parched cabin air causes our odor receptors to be flawed. In an investigation simulating the in-flight experience, it became evident that background noise may also play a part in how our sense of taste functions. People eating to the sound of background noise rated that the food tasted less salty and less sweet than the people who ate the same foods in silence. Interestingly enough, not only does the background noise on a plane (85db) cause salt and sugar to taste duller, but it also intensifies seasonings such as cardamom, lemon grass and curry.  

Some argue that the reason foods taste different during flight is because certain safety standards require food to be cooked on the ground, packed, chill-blasted, refrigerated, and then reheated, which modifies the flavor regardless of whether it is eaten at cruising level or on the ground. Safety standards now require convection ovens that blow hot, dry air over the food to re-heat airline food. Another emerging way to cook food during flight is by sealing it in a plastic bag for a prolonged amount of time at a low temperature which would allow the food to taste better. Most airlines have taken evidence and recommendations into consideration by giving airline foods an extra kick in their seasonings. Some airlines are experimenting with meals by putting them in a pressurized environment to replicate what passengers will experience.