The Science Behind Why Airplane Food Tastes Different

Plane Talk

Somehow beef stroganoff seems like the safest bet, given the options. The flight attendant slips the tray from its rack on the cart and onto your fold-out tray table. You cautiously inhale as you peel back the condensation-covered plastic, hoping the aroma of your meal doesn't put you off eating altogether.

We've all been there — or if you haven't personally tasted the unappetizing mid-flight meal, you've at least heard about its poor reputation. So what makes food taste so different at 35,000 feet? Turns out, there are a few scientific principles affecting your sense of taste and the food itself.

It's Dry Up There

Scientists, commissioned by airlines like Lufthansa and Delta, have spent a lot of time assessing how the cabin environment affects taste during flight. According to a 2010 Lufthansa-backed study, the cabin air is about 15 percent less humid during flight. That makes a passenger feel more dehydrated and dry-mouthed. Bring on the beverage service.

The Pressure Isn't On

Although the cabin is pressurized to mimic the air pressure you would feel on the ground, it's still less than you would experience at sea level. A passenger's bodily fluids move upwards and the nasal cavities swell. That's like having a cold, said one of the researchers, which means your sense of taste and smell are dulled.

It's Loud in the Clouds

It's also pretty loud during a flight — usually around 85 decibels, as loud as city traffic from inside a car. That, too, can interfere with our taste preferences, inhibiting our ability to taste sweet and enhancing our appreciation for umami, according to a study conducted by researchers at Cornell University last year. That might explain why umami-rich tomato juice is so popular on airplanes — Lufthansa serves 53,000 gallons of the stuff every year, an airline catering executive told NBC.

Put simply, our taste buds are not at their best under these conditions. We just can't appreciate the subtle notes of a good wine or the hint of bay leaf in a well-made sauce.

Plane Food, at Least, Is Getting Better

In the past, food preparation hasn't helped much. Invariably, meals are prepared and partially cooked on the ground by the caterer, then chilled (not frozen) until they are reheated hours later on the plane. That can make meat dry and tough, science writer Harold McGee told Conde Nast Traveler.

Some issues are insurmountable because of the conditions under which the food must be prepared and served. But that doesn't mean airline food can't be good, says David Marguiles, a spokesperson for LSG Sky Chefs, the largest in-flight caterer in the world (and a subsidiary of Lufthansa). "Our master chefs create recipes that take into account the air pressure and humidity levels aboard an aircraft." The recipes just need to be changed a bit from their sea-level counterparts, he says, adding: "Our chefs have mastered the art and science of adapting recipes to achieve this goal."

Today several airlines are turning to the expertise of celebrity chefs to craft recipes for the unique conditions found during flight. Delta Air Lines was among the first to partner with big names in the restaurant industry: Michelle Bernstein, Michael Chiarello, and Danny Meyer and the Union Square Hospitality Group. American Airlines brought on chef Sam Choy to concoct authentic Hawaiian meals for its flights, and TV chef Lorraine Pascale even created kids' meals for Virgin Atlantic.

Granted, it's mostly passengers in first class and business class who are reaping the benefits. But even in coach, where you're lucky if you get a meal at all these days, the quality of food is bouncing back from the low point it hit in the late 1970s. Cash-strapped airlines are starting to respond to customers' less-than-stellar experiences, and putting resources into improving them. Catering to our slightly impaired tastebuds is a good way to do that.

If airline food keeps improving this way, that cliched joke — "What's the deal with airline food?" — might become a zinger that no longer applies to our in-flight meals. But if you want to be sure to please your palate, go all-in on the umami, spicy, bitter, and sour flavors. Maybe the pasta puttanesca would have been better than the beef stroganoff, after all.

(Image credits: Samantha Bolton)