Why Food Tastes Bad on Airplanes

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If you’ve ever experienced the disappointing taste of airplane food, you’re not alone. The phenomenon of food tasting different – and often worse – at high altitudes has intrigued scientists and chefs alike. Several factors contribute to this culinary conundrum, from the environment inside the cabin to the biological effects of high altitude on our senses.

The Science Behind Taste and Smell

Taste and smell are closely linked, and both are significantly impacted by the conditions inside an airplane. The dry, pressurized cabin air can reduce our sense of smell by up to 30%. As a result, the flavors of the food we eat are dulled. The low humidity levels, typically around 12% (compared to an average of 30% in most indoor environments), dry out our nasal passages, making it harder for us to detect aromas that are essential for flavor perception.

Additionally, the cabin pressure at cruising altitude – roughly equivalent to being at 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level – affects our taste buds. Studies have shown that our ability to detect sweet and salty flavors drops by around 30% in these conditions. This means that foods may taste blander than they would on the ground.

The Impact of Background Noise

Background noise on an airplane, such as the hum of the engines, can also affect our taste perception. Research from Cornell University found that loud noise can make it harder to taste sweet and umami flavors, while enhancing our perception of crunchy textures. This may explain why savory or umami-rich foods like tomato juice are more popular among passengers, as they seem to retain more of their flavor in noisy environments.

The Role of Airline Catering

Airlines are aware of these challenges and often adapt their menus to improve the in-flight dining experience. Chefs and catering companies add extra seasonings and spices to compensate for the diminished taste perception at altitude. For instance, Lufthansa’s culinary experts have noted that passengers prefer bolder flavors like curry or ginger when flying.

Moreover, airlines frequently design their menus to include umami-rich ingredients such as tomatoes, mushrooms, and soy sauce, which tend to be more flavorful in the air. Despite these efforts, the logistics of preparing, transporting, and reheating meals on a plane can still affect food quality and presentation.

Psychological Factors

Psychological factors also play a role in how we perceive food on airplanes. The stress of travel, changes in routine, and the cramped seating environment can all influence our appetite and enjoyment of food. Eating in a more confined and less comfortable space can detract from the overall dining experience, making the food seem less appealing.


The next time you’re dissatisfied with your in-flight meal, remember that it’s not entirely the airline’s fault. A combination of biological, environmental, and psychological factors all contribute to why food tastes different at 35,000 feet. While airlines continue to innovate and improve their culinary offerings, the unique challenges of dining at high altitude mean that airplane food will likely always be a bit of a mixed bag.

This news has been read 846 times!

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