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Why Airline Foods Taste So Bad?

nOk14QANgZhFI-55DsGzbk8etocqS8KPphsfRUiAnKMwAgAAewEAAEpQ_260x196What is the last time you enjoyed the in-flight meal? Perhaps your answer is “never”. As Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday are approaching, flight attendants are likely bracing themselves for a new onslaught of complains on flavorless airline foods.

But, wait a minute, is in-flight food actually bad, or is our perception of it just a little off? It turns out that there is a scientific reason why airline food tastes less savory at 30,000 feet high altitude.

The pressure matters.

Even before an airplane takes off, cabin humidity decreases to around 12 percent. Once at altitude, the pressure change and dry air together reduce our taste bud sensitivity. As a matter of fact, our perception of sweetness and saltiness drops by about 30 percent at high altitude, according to a 2010 German airline Lufthansa study. When you are eating food at sea level, you may be surprised by how liberally the chefs have actually cooked it.

However, high altitude is only one of the influencing factors on our taste buds in the bland in-flight food story. Another puzzle piece has something to do with the fact that “flavor” is a combination of both smell and taste.

 “When you put food in your mouth, the vapors from it pass through the nasopharynx to approach the olfactory receptors high in the nose,“ explains Dr. Tom Finger, professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and co-director of the Rocky Mountain Taste and Smell Center.

High altitude and increased pressure result in less sensitive taste buds and moreover, cabin pressurization leads to swelled mucus membranes, blocking this pathway. Do you remember the last stuffy nose you had and how hard it was to enjoy chicken noodle soup? Cabin pressure will also reduce the volatility of odor molecules and their capability of vaporizing and entering our nose.

Too dry? That’s bad.

In addition, dry air impedes our sense of smell, either. Generally speaking, odor molecules transport to olfactory receptors via mucus lining in the nose. If the nasal cavity is dried out, the brain’s detecting efficiency on these odorants will be reduced. When you “lose the olfactory component, you lose much of the flavor component of food,” explains Finger.

Noise also play a role here.

Interestingly, a 2011 study published on Food Quality and Preference suggests that another hypothesis for the blandness of airplane food is the constant, loud hum of the aircraft engine.

The study was directed by Andy Wood and his colleagues from University of Manchester. During the experiment, 48 participants snacked on salty and sweet foods while listening to either silence or white noise. They were requested to rate the intensity of flavors and several other characteristics.

It was found that with background noise, food was rated as less sweet and salty than in silence. However, white noise increased the perceived crunchiness. The researchers posit that noise can distract eaters and make it more difficult to concentrate on the taste and properties of the airline foods.

So, is there any way to combat all of the abovementioned sensory changes and actually enjoy some foods when in the air? Not really, although some airlines are now devoted to developing more palatable in-flight foods, such as British Airways’ new teabag particularly created for use at 35,000 feet.

The only thing we can do now is to go on board with the knowledge that your food may not be so delicious for several hours. Or you can bring your own foods like the majority of travelers do these days. However, no matter how you prefer to snack at miles high, and no matter how delicious the foods are, it will probably still taste a little bit like cardboard.

SourceNBC News

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