For the most part, airplane food is lousy. Although better in business and first class, it still suffers.
Perhaps some of the way food and drink tastes have to do with the altitude. When we’re cruising along thousands of feet above the earth, whatever we ingest gets altered, twisted, and becomes bland. At those heights, taste buds and sense of smell are the first things to be affected and, as taste is all about the nose and palate working in harmony, it’s a problematic situation. Lower air pressure, lack of humidity, and background noise all contribute to the issue.
Lower air pressure in the cabin causes liquids to expand and contract affecting their taste. Wines that are fruity and forward on the ground suddenly come across tannic (for reds), thin, and acidic. Our perception of saltiness, sweetness, and fruitiness takes a big hit, too, affecting so many dishes. Interestingly, research has found that other attributes, such as spice, sour, and bitter, are basically unaffected.
The lack of humidity in airplanes is atrocious — often less than 12 percent. This causes our nasal passages to dry out and not function properly. Since most of what we taste is intimately connected to our sense of smell, anything we ingest tastes very bland. Surprisingly, “umami,” the savory or rich taste that some foods like tomatoes and mushrooms and certain wines like Italian reds impart, is unaffected.
Noise and vibration affect us, too
Although we get somewhat used to the constant hum of jet engines on a plane, it still affects what we eat and drink. The mere vibration alone at your seat is a subtle deterrent — it’s like sitting in a vibrating chair and dining.
Psychologists have found that our ears can also play a part in our perception, making food and drink taste less salty and sweet — but the component of spiciness is enhanced.
An important point that affects airplane food, especially in economy, is the fact that all meals are mass-produced. It’s really hard to create meals with tons of flavor for hundreds and hundreds of people — ask any chef who has transitioned from cooking for a small group to a mass audience.
So, how can you make the most out of food and drink when flying? Overall, you could simply fly business or first class where the audience is smaller and the quality and attention to detail better. For most of us, though, this is not an option and we’re stuck with economy travel.
For food, try choosing dishes that have a lot of seasonings, spice, and vibrant flavors. Foods with curry, cardamom, and lemongrass are great. Choose savory dishes that have more umami-like tomato-based options, or those with mushrooms, soy sauce, or spinach. Add more salt and pepper to your dish than you normally would on the ground. Many airlines are already experimenting with ideas, including heavier cutlery, to make the dining experience better in the air.
For drinks, try ordering wine earlier in the flight before your nasal passages dry out to the point where they just don’t work properly. Tomato-based drinks, such as Bloody Marys, will taste better in the air because of the savory character and umami component of tomatoes. If airlines could do away with plastic cups, I believe all drinks on a plane would be improved as well.
Finally, if you have a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that will eliminate jet engine hum, use them. Your dining and drinking experience should be that much better.
© Edward Finstein, “The Wine Doctor,” 2015. “The Wine Doctor” is Edward Finstein, award-winning author, TV/radio host, renowned wine journalist, international wine judge, professor of wine, and consultant. For more information, visit www.winedoctor.ca, Twitter, www.thewinedoctor.blogspot.com, www.winedoctor.ca/docs-grapevine.html, or Facebook.