When her taste sprout are means above the clouds, your normal sense of taste goes ideal out that the aeroplane’s window. Katia Moskvitch investigates why this happens, and how airlines room trying to discover ways to get our appetites back on track.

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If girlfriend think the food airline service providers serve increase is bland or unappetising, it’s not necessarily their fault. Essentially, friend leave your normal sense of taste behind in ~ the airport exit gate. Acquire on plank a aircraft and cruise to a level of hundreds of feet, and also the flavour of everything from a pasta dish to a mouthful the wine i do not care manipulated in a whole host of means that we room only beginning to understand.

Taste buds and also sense the smell space the first things to walk at 30,000 feet, states Russ Brown, manager of In-flight Dining & sleeve at American Airlines. “Flavour is a combination of both, and also our tardy of saltiness and sweetness drop as soon as inside a pressurised cabin.”

Everything that renders up the in-flight experience, it turns out, affects how your food tastes. “Food and also drink really execute taste various in the air compared to on the ground,” claims Charles Spence, professor of speculative psychology in ~ Oxford University. “There room several reasons for this: lack of humidity, reduced air pressure, and the lift noise.”

Dryness and low pressure

When you step on an aeroplane, the environment inside the cabin affects your sense of smell first. Then, as the airplane gets higher, the air pressure drops if humidity levels in the cabin plummet. At around 30,000 feet, humidity is less than 12% – drier than most deserts.

The mix of dryness and also low press reduces the sensitivity of your taste buds to sweet and salty foods items by about 30%, follow to a 2010 study performed by Germany"s Fraunhofer academy for building Physics, i was delegated by German airline Lufthansa. To inspection this the researchers supplied a one-of-a-kind lab that decreased air push simulating cruising at 35,000 feet (10.6km) – as well as sucking moisture the end of the air and also simulating the engine noise. It also made seat vibrate in its attempts come mimic one in-flight meal experience.


Interestingly, the study discovered that we take leaving of ours sweet and also salty senses only. Sour, bitter and also spicy flavours are practically unaffected.

But it’s no just about our taste buds. Approximately 80% that what human being think is taste, is in fact smell. We require evaporating nasal mucus to smell, but in the parched cabin air our odour receptors perform not job-related properly, and also the impact is the this provides food taste twice as bland.

So airlines have actually to offer in-flight food one extra kick, through salting and spicing the much an ext than a restaurant on the ground ever would. “Proper seasoning is key to ensure food tastes an excellent in the air,” says Brown at American Airlines. “Often, recipes are modified with added salt or seasoning to account because that the cabin dining atmosphere.”

Gerry McLoughlin, executive, management chef in ~ rival united state airline United, claims he has to use “vibrant flavours and also spices” to do in-flight meals taste “more robust”.

He and his fellow chefs additionally have the continuous loud humming that the jet engines to complete with. While you may think the flavour is affected by her nose and mouth, psychologists are currently finding that your ears can likewise play a part. (For an ext on this, see this video and try out a taste experiment) A study uncovered that people eating to the sound of according to background noise rated food together being much less salty and also less sweet 보다 those that ate in silence. Another twist: to those surrounding by noise, food surprisingly showed up to sound much crunchier.

However, a plane’s according to background noise of around 85db go not affect all tastes equally, says Spence. For example, seasonings like cardamom, lemon grass and curry taste an ext intense in the sky than salt or sugar.

Mass-produced recipes

It’s not simply the in-cabin problems that have to be taken into account. Preparing and serving tasty food for a couple of hundred people over the clouds is not basic task. Because of food safety standards, every meals need to be cooking on the ground. There the food is packed, blast-chilled, refrigerated, and also finally must survive re-heating in the air. Every one of this would certainly modify the flavour even if the was served at sea level.

To re-heat food on board, for safety reasons nearly all airlines usage convection ovens, which blow hot, dry air over the food. Microwaves and also open flames are not allowed, return the first induction ovens are currently on the market.


“Airline chefs are unique in that they mass create recipes for hundreds of customers,” says Brown. “Many times the last product is no what was initially envisioned as result of things exterior their control. We design food v ingredients and also packing we know deserve to survive the long process between food preparation and also delivery.”

Recently fashionable means of food preparation like sous-vide – whereby the food is cooked in a sealed plastic bag because that a long time in ~ a fairly low temperature - also help making in-flight food taste better, says Pam Suder-Smith, chairman of the International flight Services Association.

So to enhance the high quality of airline food, airline are start to experiment with experimentation meals in pressurised atmospheres or plank actual plane to replicate what passengers will experience.

Simulated cabin

“You can’t use the exact same recipes for airline meals that you would usage on the ground,” says David Margulies of sky Chefs, a firm specialising in catering for airlines. “But the doesn’t mean that meals offered on airplanes can not taste just as good. Our executive, management chefs have actually mastered the art and science of adapting recipes to changes in how food tastes in ~ high altitudes.”

So far, this proves true mainly for meals in an initial and business class, though. “Coach meals may be much less elaborate,” he concedes.


For first and business class, sky Chefs employ a team of executive, management chefs who work-related with airline client – and also use advanced kitchens, similar to those in a restaurant. Many meals are then inserted in special carts and also kept chilled till they are re-heated throughout the flight. “They are prepared in a manner the takes the re-heating procedure into account so they space not overcooked,” claims Margulies.

Airlines keep finding much better ways to research food preparation at altitude. Singapore Airlines, because that instance, works carefully with your in-flight catering provider, SATS, which has actually a simulated plane cabin at their in-flight catering center at Singapore Changi Airport, whereby meals room cooked and also tested under low-pressure conditions. “It enables us to replicate the problems of a trip at 35,000 feet and also our airline has arisen many in-flight dishes based on research performed in this facility," claims a Singapore airline spokesperson.

Nasal sprays

Some of our senses, however, are unaffected through altitude, especially the so-called 5th taste, umami. The is the pleasantly savoury taste imparted by foods items such together sardines, seaweed, mushrooms, tomatoes, and also soy sauce. “Umami taste might actually be magnified by loud background noise,” claims Spence.

And because tomatoes are so rich in umami, “this links to human being ordering tomato juice and also Bloody mary in the wait in a way they never ever do ~ above ground,” the adds.

Similarly, United’s McLoughlin is using umami-rich ingredients such together spinach, tomatoes and also shellfish to enhance in-flight meals.

In a more radical approach, brothers celebrity chef hoston Blumenthal hoped to help British prayer deliver far better in-flight food, by distributing sleep spray to passenger to clear their sinuses before they ate. That technique proved unpopular, though. Therefore Blumenthal resorted come umami, for example with a recipe for shepherd"s pie the featured seaweed in the crust.


Besides having an umami-rich menu, BA is also introducing soundtracks to complement the taste the the food using noise-cancelling headphones, claims Spence. Obtainable for first, business and economy, “it is among the networks on all long-haul flights introduced from November, and it contains both semantic matches such together for example Scottish music because that Scottish fish, and much more synesthetic matches designed come up sweetness.” Synesthesia is the technological term because that evoking a sensation (like taste) with the stimulation that a different sense, in this situation hearing.

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Some airlines are additionally investigating whether an altering the cutlery could help, because when heavy cutlery is changed by knives and forks that are light and also plastic, it makes food taste worse, says Spence. “And the cheap plastic cups in which us drink our gin and tonic and wine don’t aid either.”

‘Thin, tannic and also acidic’

Speaking that wine, some varieties, but outstanding top top terra ferma, may lose their sheet as soon as they are up in the air, states Liam Steevenson, the head that UK alcohol distributor Red & White, who is likewise one the the senior wine buyers at grocery chain Waitrose. The company used to supply business-only airline Silverjet for 2 years v the wine come go through the food selection designed by the restaurant Le Caprice. That involved a many tasting and assessment of wines on the ground and then in the air, while Steevenson himself operated as a consultant because that Silverjet.

“Wines the on the floor taste fairly fruity, unexpectedly taste thin, tannic and acidic,” claims Steevenson. “Wines absolutely thin out and become much leaner and more structured. Liquids expand and also contract follow to atmospheric pressure and also therefore maybe this is what is happening to the wine. The mid-palate is tasting much less fruity together the press changes.”

To attend to the issue, airlines have actually to pick wines that space fruity with low acid and low tannin. “This is not always easy – champagne is high in acid and lots of people want to drink champagne top top board,” states Steevenson. “Claret is tannic and also sometimes acidic – again too many of service travellers desire Bordeaux – therefore in mine mind every these to buy decisions have to be do whilst thinking around what will happen to them in the air.”

And because very low humidity alters our palate perceptions, the is “probably ideal to drink wine early on in the flight rather than towards the end, when we have actually dried out substantially more,” he adds. “As us dry, the end taste buds come to be less effective.”