Why food is bland, up in the air

By Joanne Yeo - Friday, Oct 12, 2012

If you’ve always enjoyed in-flight meals 50,000 feet up in the air with the finest in-flight service, chances are, you probably wouldn’t feel the same about the food if devoured at ground zero.


It turns out that our taste and appetite changes at a high altitude of 30,000 feet above ground, according to SATS (Singapore Airport Terminal Services Ltd), the in-flight food catering provider for airlines such as Singapore airlines and SilkAir.


Dr Mark Thong, Otolaryngologist at the National University Hospital (NUH) says the ability to discern taste is not entirely contributed by tongue and palate alone. A more significant role in taste perception lies in our nose’s ability to smell and sense. During air travel, both taste and smell may be impaired due to the cold and dry air in the airplane. And to a lesser extent, it is also affected by pressure changes in the cabin.


Dr Thong adds that in the airplane where the air is cooler and drier, the mucous membrane lining the nasal cavity gets dry and/or the nose gets blocked (especially so for passengers with vasomotor rhinitis, a type of non-allergic rhinitis characterised by constant runny nose, sneezing and nasal stuffiness). This makes it harder for ‘smell’/ odour molecules to dissolve and/ or reach the smell receptors present in the nasal cavity. As a result, the nose will have a diminished sensing ability. Similarly, under such environmental conditions, passengers tend to be dehydrated and have a drier mouth with lesser saliva. This makes it difficult to taste food as food molecules need to be in liquid state to be able to bind to the taste receptors.


Hence, under in-flight conditions, flavours become less evident while the aroma of beverages like coffee, tea and wine will generally decrease.


This is where things get tricky. The challenge here lies in SATS’s Chefs’ abilities to mediate the conundrum.


For a start, the proportion of condiments such as salt, sugar, spices and fat content are adjusted to compensate the ‘blandness’ of the food. Other alterations made to their recipes include modification to the food preparation methods and cooking processes. These changes include altering the marinate duration, the cooking temperature and technique, says SATS.


At British Airways, in-flight chefs boost their food flavours by increasing ‘aromatics’ such as herbs and spices, according to Fox News.


In 2001, SATS even introduced the ‘Simulated Aircraft Cabin’ at its Inflight Catering Centre, a facility that allows their chefs and Innovation and Development team to test the quality of meals and wines under the same conditions that passengers will experience in the air.


What are your experiences relating to this air borne eating phenomena? Does your chicken rice taste the same up there? Share with us in the comments below!
Premium in-flight meal set (Image courtesy of SATS)