Among the top most asked questions in the world, “why does airplane food taste so bad?” probably falls somewhere between the chicken vs. egg debate and "what does Kim Kardashian do, exactly?" Unfortunately, I can't tell you much about chicken origins or any of the Kardashians, but I can explain the airplane food issue. Thanks to The Atlantic, we now know that it's not just the food, it's the fact that you're eating it at 35,000 feet!
Yep, in-flight conditions are to blame when it comes to the seemingly "bland" food you eat up there, as well as why you might always order a tomato juice when the drink cart comes by. Here are a few reasons why your sense of taste is so off when you're flying:
1. Cabin pressure
Due to innovations in flight technology, planes are pressurized to make you feel like you’re flying at 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level (reminder: you’re at about 35,000 feet). Although the pressure helps you breath, it also numbs your taste buds, according to Condé Nast Traveler. Grant Mickels, the executive chef for culinary development of Lufthansa's LSG Sky Chefs, explains for the publication that flying does the same thing a cold does to your taste buds. Yikes.
(However, the fascinating thing about pressure and taste is that, despite failing to pick up on certain flavors as much, your detection of “umami,” or the so called fifth taste, is actually higher than normal. This would explain why so many people order tomato juice — which is high in umami.)
Whatever taste buds aren't already out of commission will probably be destroyed by the humidity conditions. The Atlantic notes that cabin humidity tends to be at about 20 percent, as opposed to the 30 percent we’re used to down on earth (depending on weather and location, that is). The combination of low humidity and air conditioning will dry out your nose and reduce your ability to smell. Smell is connected to taste, therefore your sense of taste will be even more impaired. According to Business Insider, after the pressure and humidity have had their way with your system, you’ll lose as much as 80 percent of your sense of taste (80 percent!).
Yep, even noise affects your sense of taste. According to Mother Nature Network, several studies suggest that the dull, white noise-like sound you hear during a typical flight can reduce your ability to detect certain flavors by 30 percent. At this point, it seems as though all hope for your in flight tongue is lost…
….but it gets worse
4. The food itself
Not only does the low humidity dry up your nose, it also dries up your food too. According to The Atlantic, chefs try to counteract this effect with wet sauces which, depending on your (currently challenged) palate, might just make it worse. There’s also the fact that most of it — not including the junk food buffet you experience on a typical Jet Blue flight — is the equivalent of a frozen dinner. Bleh.
It’s getting better
Luckily, chefs are working to improve in flight food. Traveler notes that Mickels is developing a “flavor profile” tailored to your sad, in-flight taste buds. Until his innovations make find their way to your flip down tray, Business Insider recommends noshing on cereal, fruit, salads, yogurt, soy and pop chips, sandwiches, and nuts (check out their site for more snack ideas).