A Matter of Taste: Noise, Tomato Juice, and the Science of In-Flight Meals

Why Passengers Hate Airline Food and What Can Be Done About It

Lufthansa chefs in a test kitchen

By Daniel Berg on 7 May 2014
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Think of your last airline meal. Would you be able to describe it, or was it so bland and unmemorable that you’d be hard pressed to identify it as being chicken or beef?

In-flight meals have long been fodder for standup comics. While asking “what’s the deal with airline food” may seem like a setup for a Jerry Seinfeld monologue, the question has warranted serious study by both scientists eager for an empirical answer and airlines eager to entice their best customers into expensive first- and business-class seats.

On a recent flight, you might have noticed that quite a few of your fellow passengers ordered tomato juice with their meals. You may have done so yourself, but unless you’re a health faddist, you probably don’t drink it at home.

Somehow, tomato juice tastes more refreshing at 30,000 feet, and it may be the same reason that what should taste like Beef Stroganoff at that height, tastes more like soggy cardboard instead.

An appetizer in first class on American Airlines

An appetizer in first class on American Airlines

Contrary to popular belief, airline food is not purposely designed to be bland. Rather, we perceive it to be so because of in-flight conditions. Humidity and pressurization have been known to play a part in this, but new data suggests that noise levels may also be a factor.

Ever notice how restaurants play soft, nonintrusive classical music at dinnertime? Turns out that may not just be a chi-chi nod to ambience, but also a clever marketing trick backed up by scientific principles.


A recent paper published by the Crossmodal Research Lab at Oxford University, a group headed by noted experimental psychologist Charles Spence and focused on exploring the interplay between our senses, found that background noise apparently has an impact on the way we taste food.

The new links found between noise and taste have obvious implications on an airplane, an environment that has constant background noise. A growing body of research suggests that this noise interferes with olfactory perception, which can make even the most expertly prepared meals taste like mush.  Add in the lack of humidity and pressurized environment and you get a sensation akin to having a bad cold.

This may seem to suggest that the quest to create an enjoyable in-flight meal is an exercise in futility, but it turns out that not all taste buds are created equal.

The science behind taste is a complex matter. The human tongue contains between 2,000 and 5,000 taste buds, and each taste bud contains between 50 and 100 taste receptors. We are able to experience a wide range of different taste sensations, but all of these fall under an umbrella of five broad categories: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.

Click here to continue to Page 2The Umami Factor and How to Plan an In-Flight Meal

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