Why does airline food taste so ordinary?

The truth behind the blandness of airline food and beverages

Recent studies have supplied us with a scientific explanation to why airline food and beverages are frequently so unappetising and surprisingly it has nothing to do with food quality or ingredients. In fact, this phenomenon is due to a combination of various factors such as cabin pressure, humidity and in-flight noise. These combined factors set off a chain reaction affecting a number of our senses and may be the cause of the dull taste often perceived in airline food and beverages.

When flying at an altitude of 9000 meters, commercial airline cabins are pressurised to resemble being at 1800 meters and air humidity is often decreased to 12 percent (compared to 30 percent or more in an average home). Evidence shows that once flights reach this high-altitude, taste bud sensitivity is reduced by 30 percent due to the necessary pressure and humidity adjustments. Moreover, our capability to recognise smells is diminished, therefore, making it difficult for even the most appetizing food and beverages to be appreciated.

It has been suggested that the drone of aircraft engines, similar to white noise, is an additional factor behind the perceived blandness of airplane food. A study conducted in 2011 and published in the journal Food Quality and Preference examined 48 participant’s reactions to different food when exposed to either background white noise or silence. Whilst wearing earphones, participants snacked on sweet and salty food and were requested to rate various characteristics including perceived crunchiness and strength of flavours. It was noted that participants who were exposed to white noise rated food as less salty and less sweet than those consuming the same food in silence. White noise, however, increased the perceived crunchiness of food. The outcomes suggest that when exposed to noise (approximately 80 decibels on a commercial aircraft) the tongue’s ability to detect basic taste is suppressed. The consensus adopted at the conclusion of the study was that noise seems to act as a distraction and makes it harder to focus on food quality and taste. Furthermore, it is believed that by wearing noise cancelling earphones this phenomenon can be improved.

Although wearing noise cancelling earphones may assist in enhancing the taste of airplane food, cabin pressure significantly impacts the taste of wine. At cruising altitude the molecules in wine are spread over a larger area, therefore, reducing the influence on the nose’s olfactory receptors (responsible for the detection of odor molecules). Many prestigious wines that passengers may assume would be available on business and first class flights, in reality do not always fare well at high-altitude. Rather, fruitier wines taste better on the palate than the former, due to the firm tannins existing in many prestigious wines. These tannins are inclined to become overly dominant due to the change in cabin pressure and may taste much harsher and dryer than they would at sea level.

Several studies have been conducted testing the variance between food and wine consumed at sea level and at high altitude. An interesting outcome was recognised in a recent wine tasting conducted by Andy Sparrow (the man responsible for buying wine for British Airways). It was established that a malbec wine which was not praiseworthy at sea level thrived at 9000 metres. The rationale for this is believed to be the high altitude (1740 metres) at which many prestigious malbec wines are produced in Argentina, which is almost the same as that of a pressurised aircraft cabin flying at 9000 meters. Furthermore, it was noted that sipping on champagne during an aircraft meal at high altitude helps enhance the taste of both the meal and beverage. This may be attributed to the existence of carbon dioxide in champagne bubbles which stimulants the trigeminal nerve. This nerve distributes sensations to a number of structures of the face such as the eyes, mouth and nose. Furthermore, trigeminal stimulation is unaffected by altitude and can also improve our awareness of smell.

Pressure change not only leads to reduced taste bud sensitivity, but also to swelling of the mucus membranes, which then block the nasopharynx pathway to the olfactory receptors in the nose. This means that the vapors that usually pass through this route are blocked, therefore the taste and smell of food and beverages are diminished as when you have a cold. Similarly, cabin pressure hinders the ability for odor molecules to vaporize and pass into the nose. In addition, cabin humidity also has a tendency to dry out the nose. Odorants usually use the mucus lining as transportation to the olfactory receptors in the nose. However, when the nose dries out the effectiveness of this transportation is diminished, which leads to a loss in smell and therefore reduces taste bud sensitivity.

However, this does not mean that we are destined to forever consume tasteless airline food. A number of airlines such as Lufthansa are in the process of creating more ‘flight friendly foods’. Research conducted by British Airways explains that although our taste bud sensitivity is diminished at cruising altitude, umami taste is not. Umami, a Japanese word roughly meaning ‘the fifth taste’, is a savoury flavour that is able to sustain its power at cruising altitude. British Airways have now begun purposefully incorporating umami rich foods such as tomatoes, mushrooms, parmesan cheese, and lemongrass into dishes to help enhance flavours.
Although more research is required to fully understand the correlation between taste and high altitude dining, using this current knowledge we now know what to ask for the next time we fly – a high-altitude wine and a meal rich in umami.

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Anne Lim, “The lowdown on high-altitude dining,” The Australian, March 21, 2014, (accessed July 10, 2014).

A.T. Woods, et al., “Effect of background noise on food perception,” Food Quality and Preference 22, Issue 1. (2011): 42-47.

Barbara Peterson, “Why does airline food taste so bad? Turns out, it’s all your fault,” Conde Nast Traveler, April 3, 2014, (Accessed July 10, 1014)

Barry Smith, “Flying? Ask for a high-altitude wine,” Australian Financial Review, July 4, 2014, (accessed July 8, 2014).

Fiona Macrae, “Mile-high meals may be tastier than you think: Engine noise on planes diminishes our sense of taste,” The Daily Mail Australia, October 16, 2010, (accessed July 11, 2014).

Jordan Gaines, “One reason airline food is so bad? Your own tastebuds,” NBC News, August 2, 2013, (accessed July 11, 2014).

Julie Beck, “Why airplane food is so bad,” The Atlantic, May 19, 2014, (Accessed July 10, 2014)

Scott McCartney, “The fight against bland airline food,” The Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2013, (Accessed July 14, 2014)

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