Biology Thought Of The Day: Flying High


Across the internet, you can find all sorts of websites dedicated to culinary fare.  There is sharing of recipes on Pinterest, yummly, AllRecipes, etc.  TV shows across multiple networks are dedicated to "The Best <madlib a food here>", "Our Favorite <pick food genre>", or "Where to eat in <pick a city>".  And with the summer being a prime time for travel, most people are excited about the destination, time off of work, or maybe even getting to spend time with family.  The one thing you do not hear much of is people raving about what little remains of food service on the airlines.  Minimally, you do not have a network show called "<Insert airline>'s best meal".  In these days when baggage fees can cost as much as a decent meal, how is it that airline food just tastes bad?

It may not be solely the fault of the food itself, but rather your body and taste buds when flying at altitude.  Currently, there are 5 generally recognized types of receptors located in the mouth (mainly the tongue) which react chemically in the presence of broken down foods.  They will react to sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory (umami).  But lets also not forget the importance of smell in the tasting of foods.  When these receptors are triggered, a signal is sent to an area of the brain known as the primary gustatory cortex where we interpret the signals as taste.

Now for a moment, lets make a blanket assumption that the airline food that you are served is similar to what you would find in a Michelin star restaurant.  It would have to taste excellent, correct?  Not so fast.

There are a few things working against the professional food taster.  Airplane cabin air, is typically drier and less humid than its sea level counterparts.  This has the effect of drying out the mucus membranes in both your nose and your mouth as you breathe.  With less saliva the food is not broken down or transported as well to get the triggering molecules into the taste buds.

But it doesn't end there.  As mentioned above, the nose plays an important piece of the overall taste an item has.   When food is broken down, the food vapors will enter the olfactory receptors via the nasopharynx.  Aircraft cabins are under pressure which can decrease volatility of odor molecules.  Additionally, the recirculated air (moreso the dust and debris being recirculated) can actually cause congestion which makes it tough to smell.  Both factors lending to the blandness of the food.

What if the ears also played a part in the taste of your airline food?  Studies done by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics have shown that over-stimulation on an airplane can impact the brain being able to detect the nuances of food.  Testing done with 'grounded' participants listening to silence or white noise while rating food show a correlation between the sweetness, saltiness, and crunchiness across the study participants.

In all, tests have shown that saltiness is perceived to be 20 - 30% less intense, and sweetness 15 - 20% less intense.  Perhaps something the miracle berry can cure.  So where should you turn your airline ire?  I personally can not help but hear George Carlin every time they read the safety announcements.


  • Dr. Andrea Burdack-Freitag. "A Feast For Research" Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics
  • Woods, et all. "Effect of background noise on food perception" Food Quality and Preference. January 2011
  • Jordan Gaines. "One reason airline food is so bad? Your own tastebuds" NBC News, Aug 2 2013

Posted in Biology, Science and tagged , , .