The Travel Detective

The Science Behind Airplane Food

Now I know what some of you think about airline food. You don’t eat it because you’re hungry, you eat it because you’re bored—or you just don’t like it. But believe it or not, there is a science to airline food. In-flight kitchens finally figured out not only what you like to eat, but why you like to eat it. But the facts might surprise you.

Despite what you might think, there was never really a golden age of airline food. It’s always had a bad reputation for being dry, spongy, and just plain bland.

But it turns out the main reason for that isn’t the food—it’s us. Sinead Ferguson is the Menu Design Manager for British Airways.

“We’ve done a huge amount of work over the last 18 months on what happens to your taste at altitude, and typically you lose 33 percent of your ability to taste,” explained Ferguson.

Every time you fly, the affect on your taste buds is similar to having a cold. The pressurized cabin, colder air, and extreme dryness make your taste buds go numb. You simply can’t experience all the flavors in the food you eat.

But food scientists in the airline industry have recently learned how to compensate for that by serving dishes that are rich in umami.

“Umami is a really savory taste,” said Ferguson, “and it’s found naturally in ingredients such as Parmesan, mushrooms, tomatoes, certain fish, seaweed, and we try to incorporate a lot of those ingredients in our foods.”

Umami-rich meals have a much more robust flavor profile—especially at 30,000 feet. “Certain cheeses will work really well at altitude,” explained Ferguson. “Goat’s cheese works really well, you really get that sort of intense flavor coming through.”

A similar flavor effect can be achieved with spicy foods. “Quite highly spiced foods work really well at altitude,” said Ferguson. “So wherever British Airways serves curry, be it in the front of the cabin or the back of the cabin, it’s really popular.”

But taste isn’t the only thing airlines have to contend with. “Because of the humidity in the cabin—or the lack of it—you lose a lot of moisture,” said Ferguson. “If you had a packaged sandwich and you open that, you immediately feel how dry that bread has become.”

What many people don’t realize is that airplane food is, by definition, cooked twice. “We have to give our crew specific guidelines on how to reheat those dishes,” explained Ferguson. “If you have, say, a beef dish, it will be steamed for X amount of minutes. The technology is there, and it’s evolving all the time.”

But sometimes, after running all those tests on taste buds and humidity levels, that evolution comes full circle—right back to the familiar. “Bangers and mash is so popular it’s amazing,” said Ferguson. “We’ve served sausages and mash in first class right through to club right through to world traveler. It’s comfort food.”

While fancy meals might be good on the ground, there’s a million ways they can go wrong in the air. The best recipe is often the least complicated. All the science in the world can’t take precedence over the one essential ingredient you need with airline food—simplicity.

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