Why in-flight meals taste so different at 30,000 feet
Under the combination of low pressure, dry air and high speed of the aircraft, the sense of taste and smell changes
Passengers in general love the in-flight meals. There may be a scientific reason behind the way in-flight meals taste. The humidity in the air at 30,000 feet is less than 12%, which makes the air drier than that in a desert. The altitude of the cabin is equivalent to that at 8,000 feet even though the aircraft is flying high. This is possible due to pressurised air maintaining sufficient breathable air under pressure.
Under this combination of low pressure, dry air and high speed of the aircraft, the sense of taste and smell changes. The sensitivity of the taste buds reduces by almost 30%.
The latest research shows that loud noise suppresses our ability to taste sweetness and saltiness, while other studies show that the background buzz in aeroplanes actually enhances the taste of umami (one of the five basic tastes).
A number of airlines offer tomato juice or Bloody Mary, which contains umami-rich tomatoes. Some food experts advise not to have champagne even if the high-end ones are available. An experiment by French champagne producer Taittinger in 2010 showed that the aroma lessens with altitude and the bubbles stick to the sides of the glass instead of producing a steady stream of bubbles, indicating a change in the quality of the champagne.
Despite all these, it is the experience of being pampered at 30,000 feet with a meal that enriches the food's taste.
PS: Keep a check on the additional salt and sugar that you may end up adding to the already salty or sweet meal.
Captain Amit Singh is a training and safety expert with over 30 years of experience in the commercial air transport industry. He has been associated with two startup low-cost carriers and has hands-on experience with their needs and challenges. He has been a part of the senior management at IndiGo and Air Asia India. Captain Singh has been speaking at international fora on training and safety. He is also the author of mindFly the Human Factors blog.
(This article first appeared in avobanter.com)