According to food scientist Herbert Stone, PhD, who worked on food for the Apollo Moon Mission, there are very specific ways elevation affects how something tastes. "Elevation makes the air colder—and airplanes are already kept quite cold—and when the oral cavity is cooled, we don't taste things as well," he explains. He says that when food—or its surrounding temps—make your mouth either too hot or too cold, your receptors start working on overdrive to get it the temperature back to where it should be. That slows down the process of sensing—and therefore enjoying—what you're eating.
"Elevation dulls your taste buds about 20 percent inflight," says Sheri Whiteley, the director of on-board menu planning for American Airlines. She says sweetness and saltiness are the flavor notes most impacted. "The air on board is also extremely dry, which affects sense of smell and taste," adds Lee Anne Wong, executive chef for Hawaiian Airlines.
Dr. Stone says that some airline chefs may not take into account how elevation will change the taste of their food, so they'll test it on the ground and it will be okay, but once they serve it in the air, it will no longer taste as good. He adds that many airline chefs over-salt their food to make it taste less bland, but the end result doesn't actually lend itself to a robust flavor profile. (Just mid-flight bloat.)
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Okay, so what tastes good on a plane?
Considering that it's, you know, her job to serve food on planes that people actually like, Wong has thought a lot about what types of foods taste good when served at cruising altitude. One tip she puts into practice is using lots of fresh seasonings and herbs, since elevation can dull taste. "I love serving fresh, colorful, flavorful dishes that rely on elements like savory and bright sauces, fresh herbs, pickled items, and texturally exciting vegetables and garnish," she says.
Wong has found that umami flavors work well in food served while in the air. "This is found in things such as soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, and tomatoes, and is enhanced at elevation," she says. "No one knows why [it tastes better in the air], but that definitely plays into my choices when creating the menus." Whiteley says this is one reason why tomato juice and Bloody Marys are such popular drink orders; tomato-based drinks and food taste better on planes.
All three sources say staying hydrated is another good way to make sure things still taste good while riding coach. "This will help your taste buds keep firing at full capacity," Whiteley says.
When trying to figure out what to eat on board—whether you're selecting from a menu or bringing something from home—choosing something made with fresh herbs, bright sauces, pickled ingredients, and umami flavors is going to be your best bet. If you keep these guidelines in mind, you may find yourself enjoying the food on your pull-down tray. And hey, if not, just wash it down with some tomato juice.
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