Do you remember the last time you had a nice meal on a plane? Exactly. It just doesn’t happen that often – except for that one time when you were miraculously (read mistakenly) upgraded to business, but don’t bet the farm on it happening again anytime soon. We are always disappointed whenever the food tray lands on our table trays– and yet, we still keep hoping for tastier dishes.
Which brings us to wonder: does food taste differently to us in the air?
Unfortunately for our cravings and fortunately for our ears and lungs, airplanes are nowadays pressurized. When the aircraft reaches an altitude of 35,000 feet, our body believes that we’ve actually only reached 6000 to 8000 feet above sea level, which makes it easier for us to breathe. This numbs our taste buds though, and makes everything taste, well… tasteless. According to studies, our sense of taste decreases by about 30% when we are at high altitudes.
Flying also take its toll on our sense of smell. The in-flight humidity is lower than 20 percent, which dries out our noses and prevents us from smelling, and thus tasting our food. Another study at the University of Manchester had diners blindfolded and fed sweet or salty food while listening to silence or noise. Background noise apparently led to the foods tasting less sweet or salty.
Tomato juice, for instance, becomes way less acidic and consequently more popular. Meals are über-ly salted and peppered – and wine is always full-bodied, without which everything would be bland. One of the only things that tastes about the same is ice cream, go figure.
Preparing the food is only the first problem. Once it’s been cooked, it’s chilled, stored for some hours and then reheated in a teeny-weeny (if even) kitchen, which causes it to deteriorate and taste even more ‘meh’ than it already did.
Due to advanced technology, bigger planes and additional passengers, airlines have had to cut back on food costs – meaning that the days where racks of lamb and lobster were served on silver platters are long gone. Nowadays, if you start coughing like a seal and get served a bottle of water on low-cost airlines, don’t go ape-shit when they stick you with the bill on arrival. True story.
Airlines have to cater to everyone from vegans to lactose intolerants – and don’t forget the unbearably anal: so that doesn’t leave much option. They also have to be extremely cautious. If there is any food related illness that kicks off on the flight, well, just make sure you’re first in line to the loo.
Travelling First Class, however, is a whole other ballgame. Seeing as these seats bring most of the cash in, they get treated to the good stuff. Airlines are collaborating with top chefs and consultants to ensure their VIPs get a good meal. Grant Mickels, the executive chef for culinary development of Lufthansa’s LSG Sky Chefs, may have found a solution to the “meh” issue: umami. This fifth taste, which is associated with glutamate –found in tomatoes, Parmesan and soy sauce– “is perfect for using on airplane food” and enhances the palette.
Air France teamed up with Joël Robuchon on some dishes, for instance “Basque shrimp and turmeric-scented pasta with lemongrass”. Heston Blumenthal collaborated with British Airways, which was in fact recorded for Channel 4’s “Heston’s Mission Impossible” documentary. Two-star Michelin chef Carlo Cracco has been employed by Singapore Airlines, where passengers can actually choose their meal online 24 hours before boarding. Dishes have included “Seared venison loin in port wine jus, pumpkin custard, cheese tortellini with salsify and baby spinach” and are served on Givenchy tableware. (Note to self: add flying on Singapore Airlines to bucket list)
Other luxurious airlines have gone even further in stepping up their game. Korean Airlines has its own organic farm. Emirates Airlines serves “chilled Iranian caviar”, bakes its own bread and has 18 workers solely working on crafting flower designs out of fruit every day. (2nd note to self: on aforementioned Singapore trip, make stop in Dubia via Emirates Air)
Conclusion: fly First or Business and if you can’t, suck it up or write a complaint letter like this dude did.