You are 30,000 feet above the ground and fighting for elbow room in a cramped airline seat. After paying extra for a full meal, you are eager to enjoy something positive on the flight. However, when you dig into your salad and try a bite of the sandwiches, they taste bland and weird. Though it's easy to blame the airline for serving unappetizing food, the problem is more complex. When you eat anything on a plane, several factors affect your ability to enjoy the food.
The Food is Mass-Produced and Reheated
Despite more airlines offering better meal options, mass-produced food cannot beat your favorite dishes cooked at home or in a restaurant. It is difficult to cater to everyone's preferences, so most airlines stick to safer choices that are not too spicy or sweet. In addition, there are strict food safety guidelines they have to follow, such as cooking all the food on the ground long before the flight takes off. This means flight attendants have to reheat all the frozen meals once they're in the air.
If you've ever heated up a frozen dinner, then you have experienced the problems reheating food can create, from freezer burn to changes in texture. Airplanes also have additional restrictions on the reheating process and cannot use microwave ovens or regular stoves.
There is Too Much Sauce
Whether it's mashed potatoes drowning in gravy or meat covered in a bucket of glaze, airline food frequently has too much sauce. According to Time Magazine, airlines add the extra sauce on purpose. They have to reheat a large number of meals in a short period of time and serve them quickly, which means the food can become dry. To compensate for the dryness, the airlines add more sauce than necessary.
Cabin Conditions Affect Your Ability to Smell and Taste
One of the biggest contributors to unappetizing food on an airline is the actual cabin. When you are 30,000 feet above the ground, the cabin has low pressure, dry air, low humidity and background noise. All of these factors affect your ability to smell and taste. Your mouth and nose can dry out from the air while your taste buds can become numb. Since your ability to taste food is linked to smell, this can affect you negatively. For instance, the BBC reports that your ability to taste salty or sweet foods decreases when you are in the air. Airlines try to compensate by adding extra salt and sugar, but it is often not enough to eliminate the blandness.
The background noise on a plane also has a serious impact on your ability to enjoy lunch or dinner. One study found that loud noise affected the ability to taste sweetness and saltiness. Loud sounds also made people less likely to enjoy their food and say that they liked it.
You Expect it to Taste Bad
Expectations can affect your perception. If you expect airline food to taste bland and strange, then you are less likely to enjoy it. The things you anticipate influence how you view the world. For example, in one study, people had the chance to eat smoked salmon ice cream. Those who ate from a dish with a label of "ice cream" were less likely to enjoy it than those who ate it from one called "frozen savory mousse." The change in the name was enough to influence how much people enjoyed the food.
When you think you are having a gourmet meal, your reaction changes. Even if the food is not fancy, the expectation that it must taste good affects how much you like it. The same is true for the opposite situation on a plane. When you think the food will be bland, weird or cheap, you will find something wrong with every bite and hate the experience.
Tight Budgets Affect Options
Although airlines are expanding some meal options in recent years, most people who fly economy class are not getting gourmet food. Some airlines view food as another line on the budget spreadsheet that they can cut or eliminate.
For instance, one airline in India reduced the amount of cheese it offered passengers during flights to save money. Another airline cut costs by eliminating olives from its salads. Many companies try to choose cheaper and more convenient ingredients to fit their budgets.
What You Can Do
You may not be able to affect how airlines reheat food or the air in the cabin, but you can take some steps to improve the food experience on a flight. The Telegraph recommends wearing noise-canceling headphones to eliminate the background noise that affects your ability to taste sweetness or saltiness. It may also elevate your dining experience since you will not have to listen to the whining of the person next to you.
Another change you can make is to order spicier food in the air. Even if you prefer meals to be milder on the ground, adding more salt, herbs and spices to dishes in the air can improve their taste. When you have the option of choosing the flight meals, try to select something with more flavors. You may be surprised at how different things taste 30,000 feet above the ground.
You can also follow the recommendation of actor Jude Law and bring your own Tabasco sauce if the flight allows it. You may find comfort in knowing you are not the only one who has to cover food in hot sauce to make it edible. Astronauts have also demanded hot sauce in space because their sense of smell and taste is affected.
Finally, you can change your expectations. There is a strong possibility that airlines might be able to figure out how to make food taste better in the air without making it cost a fortune. They have been experimenting with different recipes and using chefs to achieve better results. You may be one of the first lucky people to experience this on a plane in the future.
- BBC: Why does food taste different on planes?
- TIME: The Real Reason Why Airplane Food Tastes So Bad
- NCBI: The occurrence of Salmonella in airline meals
- NCBI: Food-poisoning and commercial air travel
- NCBI: Food irradiation and airline catering.
- Discover: The Science Behind Why Airline Food Tastes Bad
- NYT: Airlines Aim to Trick Your Taste Buds at 30,000 Feet
- ScienceDirect: Effect of background noise on food perception
- PsychCentral: Our Expectation Affects Food Likes and Dislikes
- The Telegraph: Why is plane food so bad?
- The Week: Full-service airlines on the same plane as budget carriers to cut costs
- News.com.au: Clever way to improve the flavor of airline food
About the Author
Lana Bandoim is a freelance writer and editor. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and chemistry from Butler University. Her work has appeared on Forbes, Yahoo! News, Business Insider, Lifescript, Healthline and many other publications. She has been a judge for the Scholastic Writing Awards from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. She has also been nominated for a Best Shortform Science Writing award by the Best Shortform Science Writing Project.