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This Is Why We Hate Airplane Food

Food + Drink
by Morgane Croissant May 27, 2015

AS A VEGETARIAN, I am lucky enough to choose the food I want to eat when I fly. I don’t exactly get to say that I want asparagus quiche with a side salad, but I do have the choice between several options: vegetarian Oriental meal, vegetarian Hindu meal, vegetarian lacto-ovo meal, etc.

Being a sucker for Indian food, I usually go for the vegetarian Hindu meal and I am consistently disappointed.

I’m not expecting a fancy plate of hot chana masala with a cilantro-stuffed naan, but the rice and “curry” I get every single time never fails to taste funky.

The fact that it’s pre-made food, re-heated in an airplane, and served to a coach passenger who tried to get the most bang for her buck might be part of the explanation, but a recent study reveals that there is more to the poor flavours of airplane food than we may think.

We know that our olfactory sense affects our taste (if you’ve ever had a cold, you’ve experienced how bland the most delicious-looking meal can turn out to be), but we know now that our audition also plays a part in our gustatory pleasure. According to Robin Dando and Kimberly Yan’s research, the constant noise of an airplane’s engines in the cabin (it can reach over 85 decibels) is one of the culprits of our negative perception of the food we eat while flying.

In Dando and Yan’s study, 48 participants sampled food with a specific taste (salty, bitter, sour, sweet, or umami) with and without earphones playing a recording of cabin noise. While salty, sour, or bitter tastes were not affected by the noise condition, the sweet taste was impaired, and umami taste was enhanced.

These findings could also explain why more people seem to prefer tomato juice while flying than they do when they are on the ground — Newsweek even reports that “German airline Lufthansa […] serve[s] passengers nearly as much tomato juice as beer.” Tomato juice, having a strong unami taste, could be more appealing at 30,000 feet because your ears tell you so.

It may be time to ditch the Hindu meal and enjoy a bloody Mary.

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