Why Airline Food Tastes So Strange

Why Airline Food Tastes So Strange

Many people find being high up an unpleasant experience. This is not just mountain sickness or acrophobia – it turns out our taste buds too have no head for heights.

Picture by dingram_kiwi

Taste is not just determined by the gustatory qualities of the food. It is also substantially influenced by the state of your mouth. Transient changes in our sense of taste are quite common.

This can occur with gum and dental disease and mouth problems such as thrush and mucositis associated with a cold/flu or chemotherapy. Some medications can also alter taste sensation including some anti-hypertensive drugs, antibiotics and antihistamines.

Contaminated pine nuts may also trigger a persistent unpleasant taste, known as pine mouth.

Low zinc levels can also alter our sense of taste. Most Australians don’t receive their recommended daily intake (RDI) of zinc. This can be a particular problem as, unlike iron and other trace metals we need for health, we don’t store zinc in our bodies, so we need a daily fix to maintain healthy levels.

The best dietary sources of zinc are crustaceans, meat and poultry. Many cereals and other products are now fortified with zinc. Zinc is also present in many nutritional supplements and multivitamins.

Strict vegetarians are at increased risk of low zinc levels, partly as they avoid zinc-rich meat and partly as fibre in plants reduces zinc absorption. Alcoholics and those with digestive diseases are also more likely to become zinc-deficient.

Changing tastes

So what about the food served on a plane? Actually, there may really be a reason why meals doesn’t taste any good at altitude (beyond the fact you are flying cattle class).

As most commercial flights go up, the atmospheric pressure is slowly reduced, on average, to the equivalent of standing on the summit of Mount Kosciuszko (2,228 metres or 7,310 feet above sea level).

That’s why ear-popping occurs on take-off, as air within the middle ear expands, builds up pressure and eventually pops out through the Eustachian tubes into the nose.

Newer aircraft, such as the Airbus A380, keep a lower cabin pressure (1,500 metres), equivalent to standing at Falls Creek, Victoria, at about 1,780 metres.

It is well known that reduced atmospheric pressure and lower oxygen levels dull the appetite. But even the modest changes in altitude associated with plane travel may be sufficient to change sensitivity for some tastes.

One small study showed that the threshold for tasting sweet or salty tasting substances increased when you go from sea level to 3,500 metres, while thresholds for sour and bitter went down. In other words, really sweet things didn’t taste so bad, but slightly acidic or bitter things, such as a sauvignon blanc or coffee, tasted a whole lot worse.

High and dry

The dry atmosphere inside a plane’s cabin also dries out the mouth. Typically relative humidity is very low at less than 10%. The only place on the ground that gets this low is in Death Valley, California. By comparison, average humidity in the Sahara Desert is about 25%.

Although most people notice dry, sore eyes and dry, itchy skin after long flights, progressive drying of the nose and mouth also occurs, producing an unpleasant “pastie” sensation (much like cotton in the mouth).

In particular, saliva reduces its water content to become more concentrated and more viscous. This can leave a salty taste in the mouth and affect the level at which salt can be tasted in food. An increased concentration of glutamate (which naturally occurs in saliva) can also produce an unpleasant taste.

More importantly, taste in food is a function of its solubility in saliva. Taste molecules must dissolve in the salivary fluid layer to reach and stimulate taste receptors.

Again, a dry mouth makes this more difficult for some tastes, especially sweet and salty. At the same time the buffering capacity of saliva falls, increasing the intensity of sour tastes in food and drink.

When you are dry, almost any cold drink tastes good, even those that would be distasteful when you are well hydrated. This fact, in combination with aforementioned changes in taste sensitivity, may partly explain recently publicised reports by Lufthansa scientists that tomato juice is more popular on flights, while few people touch the stuff on the ground.

A rational response would be to serve more sweet and spicy food on planes and less astringent wine, to be as appetising as food tastes on the ground.

But because of the noise, the vibration, the cramped conditions, and re-heated mass-produced food, eating on planes won’t ever make for a pleasurable dining experience – so just keep coming round with the cold water, thanks!

Merlin Thomas is Adjunct Professor of Preventive Medicine at Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute.

Why Airline Food Tastes So Strange
The Conversationoriginal article


  • Granted, I’m known as the guy with an iron stomach for whom just about everything tastes good, but I actually like airline food. It’s definitely improved over time, but it’s never been truly awful (in my experience)

  • Don’t forget that most food on airlines is pretty low quality stuff, that will also affect the taste of it.

    I always stick to my usual Choc muffin and Apple juice when I’m flying.

    Although I don’t think that would be enough flying international, which I don’t really do.

  • The average humidity in the Sahara is NOT 25% – t he region’s low relative humidity rarely exceeds 30% and is often in the 4% to 5% range.
    I speak from personal experience – I worked in the Sahara for 3 years (Algeria)

    • Have to agree with you Rosso. Maybe they should just use dirty waterand it would taste like coffee at altitude. I thought all coffee in America tasted like dirty water!! anyway, I,ve changed to tea years ago. Pretty hard to mess up a teabag dunked in hot water.

  • Good food simply, does not have to be simple food done poorly.
    I’m sure all these thing impact on the taste, but most of the time you can see its the types and quality of food choices. They clearly go for what ever is cheapest on the contracts. For one, why do things like sandwiches, they don’t keep well or reheat well if they are toasted, casseroles, pastas, asian dishes and a like work well when reheated. Sometimes even taste better once left to sit and become more flavourful.
    It’s not rocket science, I don’t know why you didn’t do a better job on the other side of things? Walk down the freezer isle of the supermarket and see how many meals you eat on a plane are similar to the ones down there…. cause I tell you the good selling lines in the ready to eat meals sections of the freezer sell for a reason, they taste good. Simple food done simply, but taste great. The few cents the airlines save on terrible meals, could help their appeal by looking into a better option. I know I comment on the food when people are discussing airlines.
    So in regards to your comment “and re-heated mass-produced food, eating on planes won’t ever make for a pleasurable dining experience” – no, it does not have to be that way, nor should it.

  • This is why Singapore Airlines Terminal Services invested in a custom designed Hypobaric Chamber (Simulated Aircraft Cabin) that can accurately simulate the reduced atmospheric pressure, humidity and temperature. The Australian unit, designed and built by Fink Engineering is fitted out with a full aircraft galley and dining table so that chefs can perfect their menus without having to get in a plane.

  • I have flown over on 400 flights (one year I caught two flights per week) first class and cattle class, and have worked in an airline, and as a food critic. The truth is the food is prepared in plastic trays and in ovens that are similar to dishwashers. I felt sick every time I had to inspect the kitchens, so no wonder the food tastes bad. The food smells disgusting on the ground when it is being cooked, so I held my nose every time I went into the kitchens to do my job (inspect them). Takeaway always tastes good on the planes, so it is not altitude, it is just bad food and heated plastic. If you like aeroplane food, you probably have numb taste buds, unfortunately mine are overly sensitive, which limits what I will put in my mouth.

  • I find that wines don’t taste as good in the air as on the ground and now generally avoid drinking wine as it has become a disappointing experience. I have always put it down to reduced pressure but I believe after reading the article that it could be due to the low RH as it does seem to get worse the longer the flight goes on.

  • one thing that they didnt mention that was mentioned in another study was that due to the unusual pressure, your bodies sense of “crunch” and “texture” of the food is different. So, regardless if the food is great tasting, the different feeling of texture, and the lack of crunch means that you will have a sense of “this is a little weird” when tasting the food.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!