Why Does Airplane Food Taste So Bad?

Why Does Airplane Food Taste So Bad?

Did you know that there are 50-100 taste receptor cells in each of our 10,000 taste buds?  Each receptor has a tiny hair that supplies chemical feedback from the food that you eat.  Each receptor hair can send messages to your brain to alert you to the specific taste of your food.  These are your 5 primary tastes: sour, sweet, bitter, salty, umami (this is the taste that is associated with monosodium glutamate).

But how much does your environment affect the way you taste your food?


A study by Robin Dando, Assistant Professor of Food Science at Cornell University, has found Science Experiment demonstrates effects of altitude
that the reason the food we eat on airplane journey doesn’t always taste very good is because of the noise within the aircraft.  Quite simply our ability to taste food is noticeably compromised by flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet

This theory has been tested further by a German research organisation, the Fraunhofer Institute.  The researchers tested at sea level and in a pressurised cabin to simulate air travel.  Their findings have included the discovery that cold air affects taste buds, effectively numbing their ability to work properly.  The ability to taste salt and sweet flavours drops by 30% at high altitude whilst a decrease in humidity dries out the nasal passages and dulls olfactory sensors that are essential for tasting food. 

Interested in delivering a better food experience for their passengers, the German airline, Lufthansa, carried out a recent study.  Whilst monitoring the food and drinks choices of people travelling on their planes, they noticed that people were drinking as much tomato juice as beer – but why?  Could there be something about air travel that makes us prefer the taste of tomato juice?  Lufthansa’s study concluded that cabin pressure actually enhances the taste of tomato juice resulting in the increase ordering from passengers. 

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 13.33.35But why would cabin pressure and the noisy atmosphere of an aircraft affect our taste buds?  Scientists believe that the stimulation of the chorda tympani nerve by the plane’s atmosphere is enough to trigger the changes in taste sensations.  The chorda tympani is a facial nerve that carries taste messages from the front of the tongue, through the middle ear and into the brain.  the chorda tympani is one of three cranial nerves that are involved in delivering taste sensations to the brain. 

When scientists studied mice whose chords tympani was damaged they noticed that the mice preferred saltier tasting food.

The one taste that seems to survive and thrive at altitude is our fifth taste sensation, umami.  Although often misunderstood, this distinctive taste was reported in 1908, by Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, to be the flavour we are aware of in foods such as tomatoes, meat, parmesan cheese etc.   British Airways hired science inspired chef Heston Blumenthal, to work with the Leatherhead Food Research company to recreate their inflight meals to accommodate their passengers fluctuations in taste due to cabin pressure.  In addition to noisy aircrafts and high altitudes, they came to realise that unnatural lighting, cold temperatures and passenger stress levels all had the ability to dull passengers taste.  Rather than increasing the salt levels of food the number of foods high on the umami scale were increased instead. 

Our ability to taste flavours continues to fascinate us.  Anyone who has had a heavy cold will know that food tastes much more bland than when we are healthy.  People with infections, auto-immune disease or inflammatory conditions have higher levels of Tumour Necrosis factor a(alpha).  This protein is a factor in whether we are able to detect certain types of flavours.

Did you know that taste buds and olfactory receptor cells are the fastest growing and most rapidly regenerating cells in the body? Your taste buds are regenerated completely within 24 hours.

Which taste experiments have you performed with your students?

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