April 18th, 2014

Airline food: it’s the altitude, stupid

So now they’re saying that airline meals taste as bad as they do because at high altitudes people’s tastebuds go numb:

No matter what it is—fish, chicken, even pasta—every meal served in the air seems to taste undeniably worse than its on-the-ground counterpart. To get to the bottom of this dilemma, we consulted Grant Mickels, the executive chef for culinary development of Lufthansa’s LSG Sky Chefs—who had some surprising revelations. Namely: That the food’s not really the problem here.

“At 35,000 feet, the first thing that goes is your sense of taste,” explained Mickels. He explained that the quality of the food and its ingredients isn’t to blame, it’s the way you experience it. It’s even been tested: The Fraunhofer Institute, a research organization based in Germany, did a study on why a dish that would be delicious in a fine dining restaurant could be, as Mickels put it, “so dull in the air.” In a mock aircraft cabin, researchers tried out ingredients at both sea level and in a pressurized condition—and the differences in taste were startling.

The tests revealed that the cabin atmosphere—pressurized at 8,000 feet—combined with the cool, dry cabin air “makes your taste buds go numb, almost as if you had a cold,” explained Mickels.

Well, they can explain all they want, and research all the want, but none of it’s going to convince me. Although I haven’t actually eaten an official airline meal in many moons, I’ve certainly had plenty of them in the past, and they were uniformly abominable. What puts the lie to their research is that those nuts and pretzels they give out taste perfectly yummy, and that sandwich I got in the airport (the one with the chicken salad and cranberries, that cost about double what it would have cost had it been purchased anywhere else but another airport or Disneyland) tastes pretty darn good too.

So I’m not buying it. The research, that is, not the sandwich.

24 Responses to “Airline food: it’s the altitude, stupid”

  1. Mike Says:

    Well, just fly Southwest. The peanuts and pretzels taste the same, on the ground and in the air.

    Not a bashing…my wife is a Southwest Flight Attendant

  2. Doom Says:

    Research has always been questionable. Usually a product to enrich some “scientist” to the benefit of some entity or other. I don’t believe, as I have taken my own food from time to time. Simply put, food tastes just as good at altitude as it does on at base altitudes. But no need to argue. It’s science. At this point, most of what science says is simply not true. As soon as they pull out statistics, actually, you know they are wrong. Those who try to use it, including researchers, don’t know how to use that.

    No, science is fine, stats are fine, but when they are being used as proofs, which they aren’t, they have already gone astray. Those are fields of study, understanding, questioning, not knowing. Proofs are for mathematics, and it doesn’t even mean there what most ears hear. Bleh.

  3. Nate Whilk Says:

    If that were true, then food on an 8000-foot mountain would also taste blah. There must be some towns at that altitude. Do they have the same problem?

  4. physicsguy Says:

    Airline meals? What airline meals? Is there an airline that serves meals anymore unless you are sitting up front in one of those bed/desk combos in a 777 or 787? I think the last airline meal I had was around 1979.. and I don’t remember it being all that bad.

  5. M J R Says:

    Doom, 5:00 pm —

    “Research has always been questionable. . . . As soon as they pull out statistics, actually, you know they are wrong. . . . No, science is fine, stats are fine, but when they are being used as proofs, which they aren’t, they have already gone astray.”

    In other words, figures don’t lie, but liars can figure? [ smile ]

  6. Sarah Evans Says:

    I spend a lot of time up around 9,000 ft and food tastes just the same as it does at home… 7500 ft or vising family at near sea level.

    I’m calling BS.

  7. T Says:

    “At 35,000 feet, the first thing that goes is your sense of taste,”

    I call bullshit. The cabin is pressurized to the equivalent of about 7,000 feet. Without it, at about 30,000 feet you would be unconscious, so you taste buds are not the first thing to go, your consciousness is.

    The airplane may be climbing at thousands of feet per minute, but inside the cabin, the rate of “climb” is approximately what you might experience driving up a hill. It might take an average airliner about 20 minutes to reach a cruise altitude of, say, 35,000 feet, at which point the pressurization system might maintain the cabin at the pressure you’d experience at 7,000 feet: about 11 pounds per square inch.


  8. J.J. Says:

    When I started flying for the airlines, we were still serving food on china with real silverware. The food was pretty darn good. Coast to coast flights often featured roast beef carved to one’s taste. Deregulation put an end to that. The trend has been to the lowest common denominator. Everyone (at least 90%) wants the lowest price, not the tastiest food or the best service. The other 10% still get good food and service, but at a cost far above it’s actual value.

    Since I consumed many a real airline meal (Not the stuff they serve in coach now) over twenty-five years of flying, I would say that this research is on the same level as the research that went into the AGW “Hockey Stick” – questionable, and that’s being kind.

  9. TheOtherLarry Says:

    I have done a lot of flying during my career and have eaten quite a few inflight meals from first class to military box meals. The quality of food is the same whether at 35,000 feet or at ground level.

    BTW the best airline meals I ever had was on TWA flights. Some of those were of the quality of a four-star restaurant.

  10. Doom Says:

    M J R,

    Urhm… Hehehehe.

  11. Gringo Says:

    Like physicsguy says, what airline meals? I can’t recall the last time I got something more than peanuts, a granola bar, or orange juice. Oh yeah, 30 years ago on a Continental flight I flew first class on a coach ticket because they were full up in coach. I thought that meal tasted pretty good.

  12. vanderleun Says:

    Reeks of bullshit and that’s not so tasty either.

  13. LAG Says:

    Every time I read complaints associated with air travel (& I don’t fly anymore because I mostly agree), I’m reminded of Louis CK’s rant.

    “‘I had to sit on the runway for 40 minutes.’ Oh my god, really? What happened then, did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight and then land softly on giant tires that you couldn’t even conceive how they f**king put air in them?…You’re sitting in a chair in the sky. You’re like a Greek myth right now.”


  14. Tonawanda Says:

    Put a tasty sandwich in your carry-on bag and eat it. Take a can of Pringles for a snack. Who on God’s green Earth relies on the airline to eat? If you are that unimaginative, you deserve to pay the price.

  15. Francesca Says:

    If that were true, then food on an 8000-foot mountain would also taste blah. There must be some towns at that altitude. Do they have the same problem?

    Well, we have plenty of towns at 8000 feet in Colorado. Food tastes fine.

  16. Francesca Says:

    I always try to fly SW but am getting tired of pretzels and peanuts. Could you put in a word for . . . cookies?

  17. Francesca Says:

    Oops . . . the above was in reply to . . .

    Well, just fly Southwest. The peanuts and pretzels taste the same, on the ground and in the air.

    Not a bashing…my wife is a Southwest Flight Attendant

  18. Ymarsakar Says:

    I wonder if they use chemicals or freezing to preserve the food.

    I wonder how the Japanese handle this problem.

  19. Hangtown Bob Says:

    So, that explains why the food at ritzy ski resorts at altitudes of 6000-8000 feet ASL tastes so crappy. I just thought that it was because they cheaped out on the chefs.

  20. Soviet of Washington Says:

    Most International flights (Europe/Asia/S America) still serve 1-2 meals (depending on duration/timing), even in coach. At least they were on mine last year. They were edible. They generally only have two choices, so if you have a connection (for example from SE Asia via Japan) you get to try both.

    Business travel ain’t all it’s cracked up to be these days. Company policy is “No business class” unless you’re a big cheese or use your own miles. Not fun (at 6′ 3″) spending 11 hours in today’s microscopic coach seats. Upside is, with the seatback entertainment system, I can watch my full year’s allotment of movies in one sitting.

  21. waltj Says:

    I’m throwing the b.s. flag on this one. I’ve flown many hundreds of thousands of air miles, from economy to (occasionally) first class, and the meals I’ve had have run the spectrum from delicious to inedible. Altitude might have an effect, but I didn’t notice one. Worst meal I had was on Turkish Airlines from Amman to Istanbul. 25 years later, I still don’t know what it was, and don’t really care to find out. Best I’ve had were several very tender, tasty steaks in business class on Singapore Airlines A-380s from Melbourne to Singapore. The Japanese meals on both ANA and JAL are also quite good, if you like Japanese food (which I do, the less-bizarre items, at any rate). On domestic US carriers these days, I either don’t eat at all, or I buy something at one of the terminal’s restaurants. The meals on US international flights tend to be ok, but nothing to write home about.

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    neo-neocon » Blog Archive » Airline food: it’s the altitude, stupid

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