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Why Food Tastes Different in the Air

We’ve long found airport food to be utterly insufferable. But after a little investigative work, we’ve gathered that the food isn’t the only thing underperforming. Time to make sense of your senses.

A Brooklyn-based writer and editor, Chelsea's work has appeared in Matador Network, The Huffington Post, the TripAdvisor blog, and more. When not planning her next trip, you'll usually find her drinking way too much iced coffee (always iced—she’s from New England) or bingeing a Netflix original series.

See recent posts by Chelsea Stuart

Mmmm, airplane food. Who doesn’t love scarfing down a three-leaf iceberg salad, rubbery chicken with a side of soggy veggies and that hail Mary bread roll, am I right? Well, as easy as it is to rag on airplane food (and to overcompensate with the salt and pepper…), science has determined that our biology factors into the less-than-stellar culinary equation.

Under Pressure

Food is a multi-sensory experience, that’s fact. Take a bite of anything, and your olfactory system works in unison with your gustatory cells and taste buds before bam – you’re experiencing a world of salty and sweet, savory and spicy. But when one sense is down for the count, the other suffers too.

Let’s face it – our senses simply weren’t built to perform at altitudes of 30,000+ feet. Nowadays, airplanes level out around 35,000-feet. At the same time, the cabin pressurizes to 6-8,000-feet which, even though dramatically reduced – is enough to dull your sense of smell and taste. Mix altitude with a lack of humidity, and your senses are all but screwed.

Dryness plays havoc on your sense of smell, and plane cabins are in the business of pumping out air conditioning while humidity hovers below 20 percent (FYI your home probably averages 35-40 percent). As a result of the altitude and desert-level dryness, your taste buds get a little loopy, reacting in almost the same way they do when you have a cold or sinus infection. While your ability to perceive sour, bitter, spicy and umami flavors is unaffected – your capacity to detect sweet and salty flavors plummets by 30 percent (!) – leaving your meal super bland.

Engine Noise is No Joke

Recent studies have shown that noisier environments can also dull sweet flavors and intensify savory ones up to 15 percent. While people on planes are generally quiet – save for the occasional wailing baby or Chatty Cathy who’s had too many Dixie cups of wine – engine noise and general white noise could very well affect your taste as well.

Yes, the Food Still Has its Faults

Ok, so we can (and totally will) still place some of the blame on the actual food.

Airplane fare is mass-produced on land before being blast-chilled (cooled to a point of antibacterial preservation), transported to the plane and then reheated in a convection oven in the name of “safety” (just kidding, we’ll gladly keep our open flames on land).

Logistically, the process is a necessary evil (they do prepare hundreds of meals for a single flight) – but you can see how it doesn’t lend itself well to maintaining any semblance of a flavor profile.

So, until a new school of airplane cooking finds its footing (and is affordable enough to make its way to coach) we’ll just eagerly await our next earthbound meal. At least we’ll have on-demand access to all three Toy Story movies to distract us for a bit.

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