Why Does Food Eaten on an Airplane Taste So Blah?

published Aug 19, 2015
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Surkov Vladimir)

Whether you eat the in-flight meal or pack your own favorite snacks, food tastes pretty bland when you munch on it at 10,000 feet. Here’s why.

Dryness Plays a Big Role in Taste and Smell

The science of taste and smell is complex, but in general, both senses require humidity to function optimally, and those senses are key to your eating experience. Depending on the flight’s altitude, the humidity levels can drop below 15 percent, which is less humid than a desert. With less moisture available and a low cabin pressure, taste buds are much less sensitive to salty and sweet. More importantly, odor receptors can’t do their job. Just like when you have a cold or a stuffy nose, if you have trouble smelling the food, your sense of taste is also dulled.

It Also Has to Do with Noise

The background noise of an airplane doesn’t help your in-flight eating experience either. Noise levels easily reach 85 decibels during a flight (and even higher during takeoff and landing), which can have a huge impact on how much you enjoy your food. Noise muffles or completely drowns out some sounds, while crunching sounds are oddly enhanced, which actually makes foods harder to identify and taste. Noise even affects our ability to taste sweet, muting some sweet flavors.

Solution? Reach for the Umami

While the dryness of the air and the noise levels of flying greatly affect your ability to taste salty and sweet, the ability to taste umami remains intact, and might even be enhanced. Umami is that “fifth taste” that qualifies as both savory and sweet in foods rich in glutamate that target a glutamate receptor. Tomatoes happen to be rich in umami, which is why many people order tomato juice during flights, even those who don’t normally consume tomato juice when they are on the ground.

Furthermore, food service companies are sneaking a lot of umami-rich foods into the in-flight menus to try and help you get the most flavor out of what you eat on the plane. This explains why many in-flight menus feature dishes with mushrooms, tomatoes, and soy sauce-based glazes.

Are there any foods you enjoy, even when traveling above 10,00 feet?