Whether you're flying for your job or to temporarily get away from it, hopping on a plane can make tons of logistical and financial sense, depending on your destination and goals. Food on flights is as notoriously bad as the lack of leg room, however--and it turns out much of that awfulness comes from the simple scientific requirements of the airplane.
What airlines have to fight in meal prep
Airlines who want to serve you a great tasting Meal have a few key elements working against them:
- Dry air--When you fly, you and all the other passengers are exhaling carbon dioxide and other compounds. Other materials, such as your clothes or deodorant, also can send other gases or contaminants into the air. Subsequently, the pilot and staff have to pull in some fresh air as you fly. The problem is, when you're up to 40,000 feet in the air, the air the plane pulls in is cold. It can't hold very much moisture, so the cabin gets incredibly dry. The air can be as much as 15 percent drier than on the ground.
- Pressure--At a plane's high altitudes, the air is very thin. This makes it hard to breathe and get oxygen and can cause dangerous conditions like the bends (yes, the same condition scuba divers get when they come to the surface too quickly). Airlines have to pressurize the cabin to prevent these issues and let the human body function safely.
Noise--Noise on a typical airplane is usually around 85 decibels when you're cruising. That's right around noises like your loud garbage disposal or blender, but remember, you might encounter that noise for hours.
How everything gets messed up
Considering the above, when you're on a plane, your nose dries out. That makes it harder for you smell very well. That's problematic because taste is inextricably linked to your ability to perceive odor. It's not a lot different than when you have a bad cold, for example.
As your nose turns into a less severe version of leather, the air pressure in the cabin is still a bit less than what you'd experience at sea level. It's perfectly safe, but your bodily fluids still want to move upward a little. That makes your nasal cavities swell and messes with your taste buds.
Finally, once again because the brain doesn't process sensory information in silos, the noise on the plane essentially can make your noodle perceive the taste, smell and even sight of your food differently. Researchers are still looking into this and even think the type of sound matters. But they've found that people tend to perceive the savory taste of umami--you know it from foods like tomato, Parmesan cheese, mushrooms and soy sauce--better on planes.
The end result of all this? While a glass of tomato juice might hit the spot, your perception of salt and sweet, in particular, goes down the tubes. Experts think the decrease might be as much as 30 percent.
But the airlines don't always help
All this said, airlines aren't completely to blame for your food tasting less than stellar during a flight. On top of all the above problems, the air pressure issue makes it harder to cook from-fresh meals, too, which affects texture and flavor. But the current solutions aren't exactly imaginative, either. To combat the dry air, for example, the solution usually is to drown everything in some kind of sauce. Many meals also have extra sugar or salt added, which you definitely don't need if you have conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure. And while some airlines are trying hard to tweak their meal-prep protocols so foods don't get overcooked, many other companies have found that mushiness actually can work in their favor. Because the food is often so overdone and precut, for example, you can say hello to cheap cutlery. The bulk of airlines also want to keep the number of people on flights high, which means that flight attendants simply don't have the time to put some TLC into meals even when they want to.
So what can you do?
If you do have to eat on your flight, your best bet is to try to order or pack foods other than salty or sweet fare, since you're not going to taste them well, anyway. Pump up a simple sandwich with some spicy BBQ sauce or mustard, for example, or get some curried rice and chicken or snack on cherry tomatoes instead of an apple. Lemon pie or bitter dark chocolate is going to be a better dessert choice than, say, ice cream. You also can consider bringing along your own herbs or seasoning powders, such as onion or garlic. And if you don't mind chewing with them in, some basic earplugs--or just covering your ears with headphones--might help a bit, too.