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Kimberly Egan

Quality Insider

Airline Food and Whine

We complain about airline food for good reason

Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 - 12:31

My boyfriend and I were recently discussing why it is that wine on an airplane tastes so terrible. The only perk these days in many first-class cabins is a free glass of gawdawful wine. Just gawdawful. Why?

It turns out that airline food and wine taste terrible because you are consuming them on an airplane high in the sky. Apparently one’s ability to taste food and wine decreases by 30 percent at high altitude. Cabin pressure suppresses the effect of odor, so you cannot smell what you eat, either. Moreover, the recycled air dries your nose out, so even if odor molecules were as abundant at 10,000 feet as on the ground, your nose would be oblivious. Most interesting, the din of the airplane engines makes one think the food is bland. The only explanation I found for that is that the brain is distracted by the noise and can’t focus on the food (I think there must be more to it than that).

The effect of sound on food was new to me. But there are data to back it up. An airplane’s engines emit 95 decibels, almost as much as a motorcycle (100 decibels). According to the Food Quality and Preference journal, that much noise makes salt taste less salty, but also makes everything seem crunchier. Hence stewards and stewardesses plying pretzels and sun chips.

The effect of airline travel on food is not uniform. Tomato juice and tomato sauces taste better at high altitude. So does ice cream. Coffee and, as noted earlier, most wines, taste worse. Cream sauces and lemon slices taste abominable. The data I read offer conflicting reasons for all this.

I think the airline and its route also has an effect. I had a wonderful vegetarian meal flying business class on United from Dulles to Heathrow. It consisted of sprouts, grains, carrots, and other (I now see) especially crunchy things. And I had possibly the best hot sesame noodles I have ever consumed in my life on a United flight from Chicago to Hong Kong. Descending through the clouds over the South China Sea with steaming noodles in my business class alcove, warm and cozy under my blanket, was divine.

I’d like to think it was my exquisite sense of taste, and not the altitude.

This article first appeared on the AssurX blog and is used by permission.


About The Author

Kimberly Egan’s picture

Kimberly Egan

Kimberly Egan is a litigation and regulatory lawyer with a background in pharmaceutical and medical device litigation and advice, Consumer Product Safety Commission work, food safety counseling and litigation, and commercial and mass tort litigation. Her food work has included risk-management planning and strategic assessments related to obesity claims, litigation analyses in connection with an acquisition of a company manufacturing dietary supplements, advice on FDA’s food additive and food contact regulations, advice on FDA’s Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) regulations, and general advice on food safety issues, product recalls, and supply-chain rationalization. She is a regular contributor to the AssurX blog.


Airline food

So whaddaya want a limo ride to your destination? I just want to get there and back on time and in one piece. Airline food has been lousy since the Wright brothers -- get over it.