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One reason airline food is so bad? Your own tastebuds

Mmmm ... airplane food ...
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When’s the last time you enjoyed your in-flight meal? Your answer is probably “never.” And with the first weekend in August being one of the busiest times of year to fly, flight attendants are likely bracing themselves for a new onslaught of complaints about flavorless airline grub.

But is in-flight food really so bad, or is our perception of it just a little off? As it turns out, there’s a scientific reason why food is less savory at 30,000 feet.

Even before takeoff, cabin humidity decreases to about 12 percent. Once at altitude, the combination of the dry air and pressure change reduces our taste bud sensitivity. In fact, our perception of saltiness and sweetness drops by around 30 percent at high altitude, according to a 2010 study by the German airline Lufthansa. If you ate airline food at sea level, you might be surprised by how liberally the chefs have actually spiced it.

But high altitudes’ impact on our taste buds is just part of the bland in-flight food story. Another puzzle piece has to do with the fact that “flavor” is, in fact, a combination of both taste and smell.

“When you put something in your mouth, the vapors from this pass through the nasopharynx to reach the olfactory receptors high in the nose,” explains Dr. Tom Finger, professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and co-director of the Rocky Mountain Taste and Smell Center.

In addition to reduced taste bud sensitivity, cabin pressurization causes our mucus membranes to swell, blocking this pathway (remember the last stuffy nose you had and how difficult it was to enjoy your chicken noodle soup?). Cabin pressure also decreases the volatility of odor molecules, or their ability to vaporize and enter the nose.

Dry air doesn’t help our sense of smell, either. Typically, odorants are transported to olfactory receptors in the nose via the mucus lining. When the nasal cavity is dried out, the efficiency at which odorants are detected by the brain is reduced. When you “lose the olfactory component,” explains Finger, “you lose much of the flavor component of food.”

Interestingly, a 2011 study published in the journal “Food Quality and Preference” suggests an alternative hypothesis behind the blandness of airplane food: the loud, constant hum of the aircraft engine.

During the experiment, 48 participants listened to either silence or white noise with headphones while snacking on sweet and salty foods. They were asked to rate the intensity of the flavors and several other characteristics.

With background noise, food was rated as less salty and less sweet than in silence. White noise, however, increased the perceived crunchiness. Andy Woods and colleagues at the University of Manchester posit that noise distracts eaters, making it difficult to concentrate on the taste and properties of their food.

Is there a way to combat all of these sensory changes and actually enjoy some munchies while miles in the air? Not really, although some airlines are working to create more palatable in-flight products, such as British Airways’ new teabag specifically developed for use at 35,000 feet.

Just go in prepared with the knowledge that your food might not be so delicious for a couple hours. Or bring your own food like the majority of travelers are doing these days. But no matter how you prefer to snack on-board -- and no matter how delicious the snack -- it’ll probably still taste a bit like cardboard.