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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?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Vinegar Joe ( 998110 )


    • by Dave Whiteside ( 2055370 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:09AM (#39474495)

      they removed the kitchens to cram in more people

      • 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 @11:57AM (#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 ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @12:04PM (#39475227) Homepage

            You got dehydrated in a hour? Who are you, Sponge Bob Squarepants?

        • by DaFallus ( 805248 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @01:27PM (#39476211)

          Shepherd's pie, or curry, or a burrito, on the other hand, will all come out just fine

          Good god man! Can you imagine the horror of being stuck on a plane full of people after they've all eaten curry and burritos? The only thing that food will come out of just fine is the microwave.

    • Well PanAm aren't around anymore - you have Southwest and Ryanair now :-)

    • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:17AM (#39474599)

      What happened?

      Deregulation. Once airlines were deregulated, airlines were free to give customers what they wanted (low prices) instead of what the government thought they wanted (extremely expensive food).

      I have read that serving a meal on an airplane costs the airline about $50. I would rather save $50 on the ticket price and bring a sandwich and an apple in my backpack.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by msobkow ( 48369 )

      The peanut farmers successfully lobbied management.

      Then when peanuts were proven to be fatal to those with allergies, and banned after the government was lobbied, the potato chip lobbyists stepped in, and the premade-sandwich-maker's union had a few things to say as well.

      In the meantime, the people kept demanding cheaper and cheaper air fares, until the airlines finally gave up on subsidized meals and just started gouging people the same as a sports arena with a game on. Captive audience, extortionate

    • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:20AM (#39474657) Journal

      What happened?

      Flights that normal people could afford.

    • by Sir_Sri ( 199544 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:26AM (#39474739)

      In the era of internet searches for flights basically the only thing you compete on is price and times. Everything else only matters to business customers who are contented with champagne and seats which don't jam their knees into their chins.

      And safety regulations, which, despite the talking points of some political parties, do exist for a reason.

      When the experience of travel matters (say a cruise) you can pitch a more expensive product than the next guy as a different experience that justifies a higher cost. But people view the air travel portion as an inconvenience (which I suppose it is) that must be endured rather than a value added part of the experience. No one likes flying anymore, and if you still do, there are some TSA screeners who will adjust your excitement to approved levels.

      • In the era of internet searches for flights basically the only thing you compete on is price and times. Everything else only matters to business customers who are contented with champagne and seats which don't jam their knees into their chins.

        I'd be interested to see how Pan-Am era ticket prices compare to business class today - idiotic security aside, is it actually the case (as many seem to think) that you got better service for your money back then, or do you still get the same service for a few grand, with the added option of shitty service for a few hundred?

    • 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.
    • >PanAm used to cook four-course meals on their flights.

      Airlines still do. Buy a business class ticket on Newark to Singapore, a 19-hour flight and the world's longest commercial flight, and the equivalent in time of a clipper trek from Newark to San Fran back in "the good old days." You still what you pay for.

  • by gavron ( 1300111 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:08AM (#39474457)

    The modern airliner cabin is pressurized to a pressure altitude of 8,000ft.
    That means that as you go from airport altitude to your cruising altitude the cabin only increases
    in pressure to feel like 8,000ft.

    That's below the 10,000ft where the OP claims cotton-mouth, and below the 14,000 where you
    can't breath, and well below the 35,000 OP cites as cruising altitude.

    See: []

    The original article is just pure hogwash.


    • by WalksOnDirt ( 704461 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:10AM (#39474511)

      The original article is just pure hogwash.

      Indeed, some of the best peanuts I've ever had were on airlines.

    • If cottonmouth tales away your sense of taste, then why does everything taste so much better after a big doob?

    • by PPH ( 736903 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:20AM (#39474659)

      The cabin is pressurized to 8,000 feet but with very dry air from outside. Humidifying the air would require carrying many extra gallons (hundreds?) of fresh water.

      • The cabin is pressurized to 8,000 feet but with very dry air from outside. Humidifying the air would require carrying many extra gallons (hundreds?) of fresh water.

        Or, cramming in a few hundred mouth breathers who are stoked on either starbucks (intensifying the dehydration) or fiji water (intensifying rehydration and wallet depletion)... Then again, the real substantial humidity bump happens after they all start complaining about their lousy in flight meal so i can see where the article has a point.

      • Humidifying the air would require carrying many extra gallons (hundreds?) of fresh water.

        If you use a heat exchanger to warm incoming air with outgoing air, it should be possible to recover and reuse the moisture.

        Alternatively, you could just give up and give people military rations.

        • ...just give up and give people military rations.

          One MRE should be enough to frighten the entire plane into fasting.

          • Honestly the new MREs aren't that bad. I've had worse airline meals.

      • by ibwolf ( 126465 )

        The cabin is pressurized to 8,000 feet but with very dry air from outside. Humidifying the air would require carrying many extra gallons (hundreds?) of fresh water.

        As I understand it, the main reason for the dry air is that it reduces metal fatigue (via oxidization). Planes made of carbon fiber (e.g. the 787) should (or at the very least could!) have less dry air.

    • OP says that the ten thousand taste buds (i.e. notice how there was no mention of pressure at that point) work fine as long as there is humidity. Whether at 8 thousand feet or 35 thousand feet, what the OP says is that the really low humidity inside the plane (to guarantee its structural integrity on the long run) is bad for the taste buds and thus for the taste of food.

      The article may be crap, but not for the reasons you point!

      • by ryanov ( 193048 )

        The 787 will have a more humid cabin. Will be interested to see if it makes a difference in the food.

    • by mspohr ( 589790 )

      I live at 6500 ft.
      Food tastes great!

    • The original article is just pure hogwash.

      That's what I came to say. I try to bring food on-board whenever I'm aloft for multi-hours, most recently National coney dogs(yes I always bring extra for my seatmate/s discretion). The vote was unanimous, they tasted awesome at 30,000ft. If at all possible, I suspect they tasted better at altitude, but I am extremely biased when it comes to coneys.

    • by Nursie ( 632944 )

      Yup. It's bullshit.

      1. Food in the business cabins still tastes how it should.
      2. Food I've taken on board still tastes good,
      3. The food budget per meal, per seat in economy is around $1-$2

      1 and 2 put the lie to the premise, 3 is just the reason why. Price competition has driven airlines to cut every last cent they can. Me, I'd rather have an option to pay ten bucks more for my ticket and not get fed recycled rat-shit.

    • 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.

    • and below the 14,000 where you can't breath,

      This is incorrect. People in good health can breathe just fine at 14,000'. You will definitely feel more aerobically challenged for a given level of exertion. Many unacclimatized people will experience mild altitude sickness (headache), and a few will get sick enough that they need to descend immediately for safety.

      People routinely summit Kilimanjaro, which is 19,000', without supplementary oxygen -- in fact, I've never heard of anyone using oxygen at that altitude. The altitude where it's really impossibl

  • by hal2814 ( 725639 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:08AM (#39474459)
    Blame the taste buds? That's like blaming the controller when you suck at video games.
  • Food I've bought in the terminal and brought aboard tasted just fine to me. Way too expensive, but that's a different story.
  • But Wait... (Score:3, Funny)

    by sfhock ( 1308629 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:08AM (#39474469)
    Why is it that food I bring on board with me still tastes good given all these environmental factors? Oh yeah, cause Airline food just plain sucks...
  • What a load of BS! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by na1led ( 1030470 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:10AM (#39474507)
    I find it hard to believe that because of high altitude, the food is going to taste bad, yet they can send food into space that astronauts say taste just fine. IMO, the reason the food tastes bad, is because the Air Lines are too damn cheap to provide good quality food!
  • by Anonymous Coward

    'Ice cream is about the only thing I can think of that tastes good on a plane,' says Marion Nestle

    And only chocolate ice cream at that, eh Nestle?

  • 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.

  • Different airlines (Score:4, Informative)

    by Vinegar Joe ( 998110 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:12AM (#39474537)

    Whenever I fly Singapore, Thai or other Asian airlines the food is fine. However, on Western airlines.......Delta, KLM, BA, etc, the food sucks. Different philosophies maybe?

    • One major difference is the price they charge.
      Transatlantic flights on my own dime I go with the cheaper airlines and get small food snacks, when on someone else dime I go with the higher priced airlines, all economy, and get better food.
    • This is even true for a Delta ticket that uses an AirFrance plane. The Air France flight has great food and flight attendants that are under 45 years old.

    • It's a need for a different marketing demographic.

      US airline consumers shop purely by price.

      Asian airline consumers shop by airline food quality and stewardess attractiveness, and are willing to pay for these qualities (as idiotic as it is). It's not unusual to hear Asian people talk about preferring one airline to another because of these two factors, and they don't blink an eye even if they have to pay an extra $200USD for these perceived differences.

  • Excuses (Score:3, Funny)

    by lfp98 ( 740073 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:12AM (#39474545)
    Sounds like a lot of lame excuses for cheap tasteless food. Why is it that, whenever I take my own sandwich onboard, it tastes just fine?
  • 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 rHBa ( 976986 )
      Mod parent up. I remember learning about this at high school (or was it college) 15-20 years ago.
  • by Y-Crate ( 540566 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:20AM (#39474667)

    Nothing tastes better. I'm not entirely sure why. But it's never quite as good back on the ground.

    • by Daetrin ( 576516 )
      I agree about ginger ale, but diet coke and V8 also taste great when you're in the air. I like diet coke on the ground, but not so much V8. The only part of the article that seems factual is the part about the air being pretty dry, so i expect that anything liquid seems a lot better than it would under "normal" circumstances

      Like everyone else commenting on the article i've found that any food i bring with me tastes pretty much the same as it does on the ground. The airlines may have trouble _preparing_ fo
  • Not being a blue blood accustomed to first class travel, I see airplane food strictly as something to sustain me through a long flight, and relieve the boredom.

    On shorter range flights (such as across much of Europe), only drinks are necessary, and anything is vastly better and more convenient on the ground, even in airport restaurants. Short layovers when connecting flights may be a problem, though, so it's good to be able to get a meal sometimes. Low cost carriers know all this, so they offer in-flight fo

  • Cheapskates! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fleeped ( 1945926 ) on Monday March 26, 2012 @11:28AM (#39474757)
    From TFA, 2nd page, shows the mentality:

    FOR airlines like Delta, these are not trivial matters. A decision a few years ago to shave one ounce from its steaks, for example, saved the airline $250,000 a year. And every step of kitchen labor increases costs when so many meals are prepared daily. An entrée accounts for about 60 percent of a meal’s cost, according to Delta, while appetizers account for 17 percent, salads 10 percent and desserts 7 percent.

    Delta also calculated that by removing a single strawberry from salads served in first class on domestic routes, it would save $210,000 a year. The company hands out 61 million bags of peanuts every year, and about the same number of pretzels. A one-cent increase in peanut prices increases Delta’s costs by $610,000 a year.

    The tastebud stuff sound like pathetic excuses..

  • The industry for the most part has solved this problem by simply not feeding people any more.
  • I know this is easier said then done and they have reasons for skimping on the pressure. BUUUUT it would be more comfortable if the pressure slowly transitioned from the take off pressure to the landing pressure with no consideration at all for the exterior pressure.

    I'm assuming the reason they don't fully pressurize the plane is that it puts strain on the airframe or the cabin or it's hard to keep the plane pressurized. If that's the case just consider making that a feature in future plane designs. Passeng

    • by dlgeek ( 1065796 )
      The new 787 is supposed to have a much higher internal pressure for a significant improvement in passenger comfort. (link) []
  • I'd prefer a cold bento-style lunch over the hot gloopy running-together mess they server on planes.
    • Automatic writing slip - serve, not server. My fingers automatically add in the R whether I intend to or not.
  • maybe that's why they serve salted peanuts.
  • Aegean Airlines serves (largely) excellent food. There has been the odd exception, but generally, their food is really quite good in my experience.

    The issue is the amount of money the typical airline meal costs the airline to produce. I can't locate the page at present, but recall that among domestic US carriers, Alaska Air spent the most on its food. From what I recall (take that with necessary salt), the overal industry average was below $2 per meal. The average first class meal cost something like $5

  • I typically get take-out the night before (Chinese, Indian). Tastes just like it does one the ground-- usually with anyone around me complaining that they didn't bring their own. The OP is crap.

  • Back when I was flying a lot still, the airline food tasted like crap. The fruit or snacks that I'd bring in my bag? Tasted just fine.
    If it was some weird thing with the tastebuds wouldn't my own food taste weird?

  • I see a bunch of posts stating:

    • I bring my own food on the plane and it tastes just fine; or
    • I always eat my food in Denver/on the side of a mountain and it tastes just fine

    The summary (not even the article!) makes it clear it's more than just the altitude/pressure. There's cabin humidity, for starters.

    cabin humidity levels kept low by design

    As well as all the packaging, preprocessing, etc., that goes into the cabin food.

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. -- Wernher von Braun