Four Scientific Reasons Airplane Food Tastes Funny

It’s not just in your head. The airplane food we consume while in flight does taste different than those same foods on the ground. But before you go blaming the companies that produce those meals — because this goes for the food you brought onto the plane with you as well — let me share the science those chefs are trying to combat in order to create a palatable dining experience at 30,000 feet.
We read a recent article in Travel + Leisure magazine that said there are a number of factors that contribute to our airline food tasting funny or different.
United Airlines International Economy Meal
Cabin climate contributes greatly to the ability to taste. The air inside a plane is actually drier than some deserts — only 12 percent in some cases. According to the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, the atmosphere in the cabin can decrease the taste of sweet and salty foods by as much as 30 percent. That’s why airlines serve salty snacks — pretzels, peanuts, and those famous cookies — in order to give you the best opportunity to taste something flavorful.
You’ve heard it a thousand times if you’ve heard it once: stay hydrated when you fly. Did you know that dehydration also impacts taste? Liquids expand and contract as the cabin pressure changes, and that makes wine and other alcohol thin and taste acidic. If you want to consume such beverages and enjoy them inflight, be sure to have sufficient water before boarding and during the flight.
Your ability to smell also takes a hit as soon as you step into a plane, and continues to deteriorate as the plane climbs to its cruising altitude. Decreased ability to smell also impacts taste. If you’ve ever pinched your nose to avoid tasting your cough medicine, you’ve seen this in action.
In addition to the Fraunhofer survey, the BBC reported that passengers noted the increased noise as a deterrent to fully tasting the sweet and salt spectrum. Several ingredients that are unchanged by altitude include those that are bitter, spicy, and sour, so chefs utilize those to perk up the flavors of their dishes. Lemongrass, cardamom, and curry are also unaffected.
If you want to improve your dining experience, stay hydrated and lower your expectations, or bring your own food.
Photo credit: Cudd22 (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons)