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Science Reveals Why Airplane Food Tastes So Bad 388

Hugh Pickens writes "At low elevations, the 10,000 or so taste buds in the human mouth work pretty much as nature intended. But step aboard a modern airliner, and the sense of taste loses its bearings. Even before a plane takes off, the atmosphere inside the cabin dries out the nose. As the plane ascends, the change in air pressure numbs about a third of the taste buds, and at 35,000 feet with cabin humidity levels kept low by design to reduce the risk of fuselage corrosion, xerostomia or cotton mouth sets in. This explain why airlines tend to salt and spice food heavily. Without all that extra kick, food tastes bland. 'Ice cream is about the only thing I can think of that tastes good on a plane,' says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. 'Airlines have a problem with food on board. The packaging, freezing, drying and storage are hard on flavor at any altitude, let alone 30,000 feet.' Challenges abound. Food safety standards require all meals to be cooked first on the ground. After that, they are blast-chilled and refrigerated until they can be stacked on carts and loaded on planes. For safety, open-flame grills and ovens aren't allowed on commercial aircraft, so attendants must contend with convection ovens that blow hot, dry air over the food. 'Getting any food to taste good on a plane is an elusive goal,' says Steve Gundrum, who runs a company that develops new products for the food industry."
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Science Reveals Why Airplane Food Tastes So Bad

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  • The good old days... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:06AM (#39474439)

    PanAm used to cook four-course meals on their flights. What happened?

  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:11AM (#39474531)

    I thought it was psychological effects? Being molested by federal agents, being treated like a terrorist, being herded like cattle at a slaughterhouse, mind numbing boredom waiting around, late of course, sounds like a fun date, what could possibly go wrong? Doesn't everyone else look forward to a full body cavity search before a gourmet meal?

    Also only a tiny fraction of my travel, on ground or in airplane is for fun. Mostly its because I have to meet someone at work, training, fix something, somebody far away croaked, etc. Its almost never involves good news. Flying home because granny died last night is going to kind of ruin the dining experience regardless what they do. Or traveling to the worlds most boring, tiring, and pointless meeting while in a bad mood ruins the dining experience. I have traveled for fun, its just that I make 5, maybe 10 business-related trips for each vacation.

  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:15AM (#39474571)

    I find it hard to believe that because of high altitude, the food is going to taste bad

    Winter in Denver above 5000 feet simply can't be that much different than a pressurized cabin, yet people in Denver don't starve to death.

    Some of my best meals have been eaten while wearing snowshoes on the side of a mountain/hill. Builds up an appetite, I'm having fun, etc.

  • olds (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Tom ( 822 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:18AM (#39474635) Homepage Journal

    Yes, and? This has been known for many years. Most airlines have special kitchens for their chefs to work in which artificially create in-flight atmosphere (pressure, humidity, etc.) so the chefs can taste what their food is like to the passengers.

    I don't see any recent breakthroughs mentioned. So what the heck is this blogging nonsense doing on the frontpage?

  • by MoonBuggy ( 611105 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:27AM (#39474753) Journal

    Which is quite understandable, if somewhat depressing. The bit I don't get is why so many airlines still insist on serving food which is never going to survive the cook-chill-reheat process properly - even a decent chef would have trouble making a chicken breast and steamed veg, or the vast majority of pasta dishes, taste good under those conditions. Shepherd's pie, or curry, or a burrito, on the other hand, will all come out just fine. It's not always the case, but even in business class, when they actually have put in the money and effort, there seems to be a surprisingly high chance of a menu that just isn't designed to travel.

  • by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:45AM (#39474949)
    People do not want to pay an inflation adjusted price of $10,000 per ticket. The olden day there was high service people people who flew would pay for the premium price.
    Now the price of Fuel is much higher, and more people are demanding to travel. And the price of any luxury adds a lot to the cost of the flight.

    Think about it, A full kitchen where you can put 30 more people per flight. Would add about $200 to the price of your ticket, Just due to the space. Then there is hiring people to do the work, store the extra food... It adds up.

    As customers we decided that we would prefer cheaper rates and be treated like cattle, then to pay a lot more and treated like a human.
  • by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:57AM (#39475129)
    Well some people have low tolerances towards spicy food, for them it isn't that it tastes bad, but it is painful to eat. Then you need to try to be respectful of religions, So Shepherd's pie with Beef and Milk in the Potato's Make goes against Hindu, Jewish and Muslims values. So you are better off serving food that doesn't really taste good but doesn't taste horrible either. Where people will eat it because they are hungry.
    The Idea to not serve food on these flights may be going too far. Because even a 1 hour flight without food/drink does get painful. I remember one time Going from Pittsburgh to Baltimore the flight was too rough that they couldn't serve drinks, (well it was worse the turbulence happened mid way so half of the people got drinks) I was quite miserable as I was very dehydrated at the time, and all I wanted was some normal water.
  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @12:12PM (#39475319)

    Serving a meal on a plane costs in the area of $10

    The airline may pay $10 to the caterer for the meal. But that is only a small part of the cost. There is the cost of the ground crew to transport and load the meal. There is the cost of extra crew to serve the meals. There is the extra expense of running kitchens at 30,000 ft. There is the extra cost of buying planes that have those kitchens. And probably the biggest expense: there is the lost revenue from the passenger seats displaced by the kitchens and storage space for empty trays.

  • by theNAM666 ( 179776 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @12:25PM (#39475463)

    Oh good grief. What a load of BS. The ground crew is provided by the caterer. And so on. You obviously don't know what the FUCK you're talking about.

  • by DrgnDancer ( 137700 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @12:38PM (#39475609) Homepage

    Between ROTC and 10 years in the Guard I've experienced the last four generations of MRE. The late 80's / early 90's version was worthy of all the disdain ever heaped upon them. They've gotten progressively better though. Other than a residual slight metallic tang to the meat, current generation MRE's are by and large no worse than most fast food (which is not to say that they're good, just not nearly as awful). The vegetarian one's are actually better IMO, the lack of meat completely removes the metallic taste and they always have fruit and granola bars as extras. The fruit is no worse than any canned fruit and the granola bars don't suffer from the heat as much as a lot of snacks.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that you want a regular diet of the things; but living on them for a couple of days isn't unpleasant anymore. No worse than a travel day where you're forced to eat more fast food than you'd like.

  • by DrgnDancer ( 137700 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @12:43PM (#39475661) Homepage

    Oh, and they come with chemical heater now. Activate the heater with a quarter cup or so of water and no more cold/frozen food. The second and third generation had the heaters as an optional extra item the unit could get along with the MRE; but now they're packed inside the bag. There's less chance of a screw-up or sadistic supply sergeant that way.

  • by Martin Blank ( 154261 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @01:13PM (#39476011) Homepage Journal

    This will be changing soon. The 787 is the first airliner to be pressurized to 6,000 feet and the follow-up projects in the Yellowstone portfolio will have similar environments. It will also have a higher humidity level (up to 15%, around four times higher than other planes) because the carbon fiber will not corrode in the same way as current metal structures. It's still relatively dry air, but it won't be the moisture vacuum that are the current airborne environments.

  • I, for one, have eaten quite well on an airplane. I flew Turkish Air to Istanbul and Beijing, and I must say their food is awesome. The Chinese airliner I flew afterwards also had decent food.

    Good food on an airplane isn’t an impossible feat. My taste buds work just fine on all altitudes I’ve tried them on. Food quality primarily depends on how little the airliner is willing to spend on it.

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