Whether you have tried food on a plane yourself or just heard stories, the truth is that food does taste bad, or at least worse, when you are 30,000 feet in the air. Well, turns out it is not the food itself that is to blame, but rather your surroundings.
Explaining why airline food tastes bad points to two different phenomena. The first one is noise.
A study was performed by Cornell University where scientists had a group of people test different types of food and report on the flavors they detected. In the first round, participants ate under silent conditions. The second time, they ate with headphones on which simulated the loud sound of aircraft engines, about 85 decibels in volume (similar to the noise level of a lawnmower or vacuum cleaner).
The people reported that when they ate under noisy conditions, they noticed a decrease in the detection of sweet, sugary flavors. Not only that, but they also noticed an increase in umami, the savory taste you get from food items like soy sauce, shiitake mushrooms, and tomatoes.
The second factor affecting taste is the atmosphere of the airplane cabin. We use tastebuds in our mouth to taste, but a large fraction (80–90%) of our flavor sensations actually come from smell.
This is something you can test yourself. Pinch your nose while tasting something and you will see how bland it is. Open your nose midway through chewing and you’ll feel a rush of flavors return.
Inside an airplane cabin, the air can be quite dry. This can dry up the mucus in your nose which reduces the efficacy of odor receptors. With a lack of feedback from your nasal passages, food can also taste more bland than under typical circumstances.
Airline food makers are aware of these effects and adjust their servings to be more palatable to consumers, but they can only do so much without making foods terribly unhealthy by loading them with salt and sugar. Ultimately, it’s just something we have to deal with when we travel, but at least you don’t necessarily have to blame the food!