Why does airline food taste bad?

“The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird.”

This passenger’s unsolicited description of his airline meal sent to Virgin CEO Richard Branson remains one of the best airline food letters ever. He captured what most of us think: “Who thinks anyone would want to eat this?” In-flight food is so universally reviled that the fact that some airlines no longer offer food service can be viewed as a humanitarian gesture.

Bad airplane food begs the question: Is there something about altitude that makes food taste bad?

Your ability to taste food and wine decreases thirty-percent at altitude.

— Simon Talling-Smith, executive vice president, Americas for British Airways.

Actually, yes, says Simon Talling-Smith, executive vice president, Americas for British Airways. Talling-Smith recently held a tasting at BA’s luxurious, new Galleries Lounge at Newark-Liberty Airport where first and business-class passengers can quaff endless cocktails, savor filet mignon and enjoy fresh berries and cream.

Economy class airline food has a bad rap, sometimes deservedly so, admits Talling-Smith. But sometimes it has little to do with the food. It has to do with what happens when you fly.

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“Your ability to taste food and wine decreases thirty-percent at altitude,” says Talling-Smith. Howard Hillman’s The New Kitchen Science (Mariner Books) confirms that flying decreases not just taste bud sensitivity but sense of smell.

“Cabin pressure,” writes Hillman, “decreases the volatility of the odorant molecules,” meaning there’s not a whole lot of aromas at altitude. (Ever notice that it gets stinky when you start de-planing?) Further, the cabin’s ultra-dry atmosphere “dehydrates the entire body” and also “impairs the passenger’s olfactory sensory mechanism,” i.e. ability to smell.

Smell and taste are linked, so the plane’s physical atmosphere actually ruins your meal. Diuretics like coffee and alcohol further dehydrate, reducing taste and smell even more.

This means that food that’s okay at ground-level tastes bland or just plain bad at 35,000 feet. In-flight chefs at BA have started to pump up the flavor by boosting “aromatics”—herbs and spices. They’re also picking the right dishes.

Responding to an email, Christopher Cole, BA’s food & beverage and in flight product change manager, writes that people want food “with strong and authentic flavor” and “dishes they expect to find at home or at the other end of their route.”

Passengers don’t want anything too adventurous, he says. Think comfort food—savory pies (Shepard’s, chicken pot), casseroles, lasagna, well-sauced dishes, Plum Crumble. Call it “Height Cuisine.” Creamy, curried Chicken Tikka Masala is BA’s most popular dish. Tortellacci (big tortellini) with Olive and Pomodoro Sauce is also a winner. Chocolate marbled cheesecake is “a crowd pleaser” with both Brits and Americans.”

Also, what you get depends on your destination. Americans and Europeans don’t want fish but it’s popular “even expected,” observes Cole, on East Asian routes. Middle Easterners prefer lamb to pasta while Americans prefer the opposite.

People “want simple food, prepared well,” says Talling-Smith. “Think food that’s better the day after.” People don’t want haute in their height cuisine.

Smart choice, says molecular flavor detective and culinary relationship expert Francois Chartier. Not just because flying decreases taste bud sensitivity, but more importantly because it kills your sense of smell. Smell is more important than taste buds in terms of actually tasting something. Pinch your nose, eat, he says, and you’ll see.

Smell ability aside, the real culprit says Chartier, author of Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor (Wiley), is sound.

Sound affects how you perceive a dish. He cites an experiment conducted by Oxford neuroscientist Charles Spence with bacon and egg ice cream. Those listening to sizzling bacon sounds thought bacon was the dominant flavor. Those who heard barnyard clucks and squawks thought egg dominated. The background noise actually determined what they tasted.

Loud music or loud noise like that of a jet engine—plane cabins ring in at 95dB; motorcycles at100dB—“makes salt, less salty and sweet, less sweet,” says Chartier. They make food bland. (It’s logical that really fine restaurants are really quiet.) A study published in the journal Food Quality and Preference concurred, adding that loud noise did increase the perceived crunchiness of crunchy food. Pay attention, KFC.

Between the arid environment, fewer aromas, impaired smell, the whole taste bud situation and unrelenting noise, it’s a miracle that passengers can taste anything at all.

So until the airlines perfect their menus and seasonings, say buh-bye to your Bloody Marys and wear a set of earplugs.