Two of my favourite things are travelling (by plane) and eating. I’ve been doing both since I was a baby, and I couldn’t imagine my life without either. I will never forget the excitement that would shoot through my body when I was younger, waking up from my awkward sleeping position on the plane, that somehow allowed me to feel well-rested, and would be greeted by the pilot’s delightful announcement about breakfast being served very soon. That excitement was so intense, it’s as if it were riding a waterslide that contained several different loops, and found itself all throughout my body.
Several years later, the food lover in me has evoked a hunger for this pure joy, asking myself- can food actually taste different 12 thousand meters up in the sky? Does altitude have the ability to alter our perception of taste?
Airplane food is a very controversial topic. You either like it, or you hate it. However, did you know that as soon as you book that flight ticket for your beautiful vacation, the airport departure gate is where your sense of taste will be left behind? By the time you reach around 9,100 meters, your sense of taste and smell is completely deprived, due to lower air pressure, the lack of humidity, and the background noise of the plane. Director of In-flight Dining & Retail at American Airlines, Russ Brown, states that “Flavour is a combination of both, and our perception of saltiness and sweetness drop when inside a pressurised cabin.”
Your sense of smell is the first thing to be affected by an aeroplane's atmosphere once you get on board. During ascent, the cabin humidity plummets as the air pressure drops. Once you reach cursing altitude, at 12 thousand meters, the humidity is drier than most deserts, amounting to less than 12%! What drives your taste buds’ sensitivity by around 30%, is this exact combination of the drop in air pressure and the dryness. However, it is only your perception of sweet and salty that become greatly muted, whereas our sense of spicy, bitter and sour flavours remains intact.
Everyone knows the expression, ‘you eat with your eyes’, but more fittingly, it should be ‘you eat with your eyes and your nose’. The perception of taste is based on smell up to 80% of the time. Surprisingly enough, in order to perceive smell successfully, our noses must produce evaporating mucus, which simply means mucus that is runny, as opposed to dried-up nasal mucus which remains in the nose in the form of a booger. Nevertheless, finding yourself in a sealed cabin with low pressure results in poor functioning of our odour receptors, leading to bland perceived food. This is why airlines have to add an extra kick to flight food by adding more salt and spices than the usual restaurant would on the ground. Brown from American Airlines remarks that “Proper seasoning is key to ensure food tastes good in the air.”
Apart from the chefs having to adapt their cooking to the dryness and lower pressure, the buzzing and vibration of the jet engines are also taken into consideration. Psychologists have recently concluded that what we hear also plays a part in how we perceive taste. Silence, according to a study, makes food taste less salty and sweet compared to loud background noise. Once again, however, not all of our taste receptors are impacted similarly. A plane’s background noise of approximately 85db intensifies the flavour of spices such as lemongrass, cardamom, and curry, in the sky, as opposed to salt and sugar. In addition, the constant background noise makes you less attentive to what you're eating because it subconsciously distracts you.
So, the next time you fly, you will be one of the more knowledgeable passengers on board in terms of knowing about an altered taste perception of up to 20%-30% whilst up in the air. Airline food really does play with your senses, and the perceived loss of taste is compensated by adding a more bountiful seasoning mix to airline food. Pro tip: due to the saltiness of tomato juice, and the slightly bitter-sweet taste of ginger ale, both are great drink options to enjoy nothing less than a flavourful journey!