Two questions I am often asked ‘why does airline food taste so terrible’ and ‘is the food on a corporate jet better than airline food’. Well yes, when it comes to airline cuisine it can be anybody’s guess as to what has been dropped in front of you. With regards to corporate jet catering, frankly it had better be superior when your guests are paying up to $10,000 per flying hour for the privilege.
However, before we jump to blaming the airline catering and their lack of cooking finesse or your cabin crew for over cooking the food, let me explain a little. There is some science to explain why airline food can often taste so bland, it’s all about altitude, even the finest meal on a corporate jet can be affected.
Altitude can affect the human body in a myriad of ways, especially in a pressurised aircraft cabin. High altitudes affect how things taste and our perception of salt and sweet flavours in particular. The artificial cabin atmosphere we would experience when cruising at high altitude is drier than any known desert. The decreased humidity in the cabin dries out the mucus membranes in your nose and throat in turn which affects the olfactory sensors. These are essential for tasting and for distinguishing flavour. We need the sense of smell to be able enjoy our food properly, in fact it is said 80% of what we perceive as taste is actually smell. Of course it’s not just foods, fine wines can be affected too, if your olfactory senses are diminished then the bouquet, aroma and mouth feel of a wine may be affected.
In 2010 the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany undertook some food altitude research, they examined why dishes tasting exceptional on the ground failed in the air. They used a pressurized mockup cabin subject to the same noise levels a jet engine produced. They tested foods at a variety of altitudes, they discovered that taste could be depleted by upto 30% and that around 8000 feet the sense of taste and smell were so reduced it was almost like having a cold.
Aviation caterers both corporate jet and airline, are well versed with the challenge and often add extra salt and seasoning to the catering, experimenting with dishes. SATS who produce Singapore airlines catering, have their own simulated aircraft cabin at their catering centre at Singapores Changi Airport, meals are prepared and tested under various pressure conditions.
So next time you have the pleasure of inflight dining and are wondering what on earth you have just eaten, go easy on the chef or the Flight Attendants it might just be down to your senses at altitude.