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

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An umami-rich meal on Alitalia

An umami-rich meal on Alitalia

The last one may be unfamiliar to some and holds the key to understanding the implications of the group’s research on the way we experience our in-flight meals.


Umami is a Japanese term that defies translation, but can connote meaty and delicious as well as savory.  Foods rich in glutamate, such as tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, walnuts, and mushrooms, all have an umami taste. Of the five categories of taste, umami is the only one that was found to be relatively unaffected by background noise. This makes an umami-rich menu the Holy Grail for “all those vocal restaurant critics out there who have been complaining that the background noise in many restaurants is simply too loud nowadays so that they can no longer enjoy their food,” according to Professor Spence and his research colleagues.

While little can be done about engine noise, new findings about umami could lead to tastier meals on board. Airline industry leaders have devoted significant time and energy to developing the perfect in-flight meal.

First-class meal on Lufthansa Frankfurt-New York Flight

First-class meal on Lufthansa Frankfurt-New York Flight


A recent discussion with culinary experts from Lufthansa and LSG Sky Chefs, its in-flight catering subsidiary, revealed the careful planning that goes into what we are served on an airplane. Lufthansa tests its airline meals in a specialized facility at the Fraunhofer Institute in Munich that simulates airplane conditions. As Lufthansa catering executive Ernst Derenthal put it, “food alone is not recognized without a good story”.

An in-flight food concept at the German flag carrier starts with determining the type of flight: duration, distance, departure time, and time of arrival are all taken into consideration. A late flight, for example, will have lighter courses, as passengers are more likely to have eaten dinner beforehand and heavy meals can make it more difficult to fall asleep. As in the case of tomato juice, travelers have different preferences in-flight than on the ground. Lufthansa passengers surveyed often ask for healthy, low-calorie desserts: a resolution that is soon forgotten after takeoff.

In first class, Lufthansa introduced a star chef program, which has included such notables as Paul Bocuse, Marc Haberlin, and Jean George Vongerichten. According to the airline, Lufthansa is the only one in the industry to have top chefs design the whole meal instead of just the entrée. The aim is to create a seamless in-flight dining experience that elicits more “oohs” than “ehs”.  Special attention is placed on aesthetic plate presentation. After all, “you eat food with your eyes first,” says Derenthal.

So you may ask what to keep in mind when ordering from the in-flight menu. As mentioned above, tomato and Parmesan are good choices, so go for the pasta when offered.

Even if in the end you can’t make friends with airline food, when in dire straits there is always the liquid lunch option. The Bloody Mary has been called the queen of the cocktails, and some extra pepper will give it that extra kick to make it even more palatable. Odds are you won’t be the only one: Lufthansa figures show that 1.8 million liters of tomato juice are consumed annually on their flights, compared with 2.2 million liters of beer.

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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